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UAW corruption investigation casts shadow at the bargaining table as GM workers strike

striking UAW workers
Steve Carmody
Michigan Radio
Striking UAW GM workers in Flint.

GM workers have been on strike since midnight Monday.

Company and union leaders are back at the bargaining table in Detroit. They’re trying to hammer out a new contract after GM workers walked off the job for their first strike since 2007.

But there’s a third, unseen presence at the bargaining table this time. It’s the U.S. Justice Department, and its investigation into alleged corruption by some UAW officials.

Workers want job security, pay equity

Across the country, nearly 50,000 workers put down their work and took to the picket line at midnight on Monday.

Outside the Flint Assembly Plant, picketing workers drew a lot of supportive honks from passers-by.

Jessica Gilbert works there. She’s been with GM for 13 years, nine of them at its Lordstown, Ohio plant. Lordstown was one of four U.S. plants GM announced plans to shut down last year—a major point of contention in these contract talks.

Gilbert says she wants to be able to put down roots in Flint.

“Job security is a big thing, because I don’t want to have to keep moving my family. This is my fifth plant,” she said.

The UAW says workers gave up a lot to help GM survive its 2009 bankruptcy, and return to profitability.

Now the union wants workers to have a bigger share of those profits. And it wants them shared more equally.

Right now, GM employs around 5,000 temporary workers who get much lower pay and benefits than their non-temp counterparts.

“It’s difficult to work on the line across from somebody you know is making half the wages and don’t have the same benefits that you have, but they’re doing the exact same job,” said Bill Reed, the President of UAW Local 602 in Lansing.

It also takes longer for UAW line workers to reach top pay rates than it did in past years. The union hates that—though they agreed to it in their 2015 contract. So union leaders are under a lot of pressure to kill a two-tier wage system once and for all this time.

The long shadow of corruption allegations

But that’s not the only reason they’re under pressure.

Vance Pearson, a top UAW official who’s been at the bargaining tablein Detroit, is scheduled to have a court hearing this week in Missouri on money laundering charges.

Pearson’s indictment highlights ongoing federal investigation into alleged UAW corruption. The FBI even raided the homes of UAW President Gary Jones and former President Dennis Williams last month.

Peter Henning is a professor of law at Wayne State University and a former federal prosecutor. He says that when the feds investigated union leaders in the past, it was usually over suspected ties to organized crime. But this may be something entirely different.

“It appears that it was essentially treating some of the funds like their own little piggy bank,” said Henning.

Some UAW officials allegedly devised a scheme to use union member dues for personal expenses, like California luxury accommodations and golf.

These are only allegations, and neither Jones nor Williams has been charged.

Despite GM’s profits right now, the automaker is looking at a possible looming recession, weakening demand, and tariff challenges. It’s leaning heavily on truck and SUV sales, as the industry is becoming more technologically complex and electrified.

Marick Masters teaches business and labor studies at Wayne State. He says the UAW will inevitably have to make a less-than-perfect deal for its members—but with many union members’ skeptical of the leadership’s credibility, leaders are more likely to “play to the crowd” and less likely to make a deal.

“And that becomes a vicious circle in which inflexibility on one side leads to inflexibility on the other side,” said Masters.

“I think at this point in time, the company has the leverage, because of the cloud that hangs over the UAW leadership.”

That cloud leaves workers caught in the middle. And it could add up to the one thing no one really wants—a bitter and lengthy strike.

UPDATE:  An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Jessica Gilbert as Jennifer Gilbert.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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