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With corruption charges against ex-president, UAW at a crossroads

Gary Jones stands at a UAW podium
United Auto Workers

Something happened this week that we’ve known was coming for awhile.

Former United Auto Workers President Gary Jones was charged with several federal crimes for allegedly embezzling union dues. He’s the fourteenth person charged in an intertwined series of UAW corruption scandals.

This leaves the union at a crossroads.

“It’s a disgrace”

We’ve been waiting for this announcement ever since this happened last summer:


That’s Detroit’s WDIV-TV reporting as federal agents descended on the homes of UAW President Gary Jones, and former President Dennis Williams.

Jones resigned as UAW President in November. Since then, he and the union have been waiting for him to be officially charged.

And now that’s happened. Jones has been charged with embezzlement, racketeering, and tax evasion for allegedly conspiring to embezzle more than a million dollars in UAW dues money, and spending it on luxury items ranging from golf clubs to cigars.

Matthew Schneider is the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan. He said the conspirators covered up this scheme through fake vouchers and false receipts.

“They repeatedly lied to the UAW accounting staff by disguising their luxuries as payments to outside 

vendors, or meals for UAW officials,” said Schneider.

The whole thing leaves many UAW members feeling disgusted.

“I think it’s unbelievable, and it’s a disgrace,” said Sean Crawford.

Crawford works at GM’s Flint Truck Assembly plant, and has been a UAW member since 2008.

Crawford says this reveals something that many UAW members have long felt: that union leaders are out of touch with the needs and values of its membership. Crawford blames that on the opaque and clubby way the UAW selects its leaders through its administrative caucus. And he wants it to change.

“Open up the voting process for the higher officials, to make sure that the membership can directly vote for these people,” Crawford said.

Crawford is hopeful this spurs a move toward more direct democracy within the union. But he’s also worried the corruption scandals will sap the vitality of one of the nation’s last-remaining powerful unions. “We really need strong independent leaders now who are not corrupt, and who have people’s interests at heart,” he said.

Government takeover a possibility

Marick Masters, a professor of business at Wayne State University, agrees the UAW needs serious reforms.

Masters said the steps union leaders, including new President Rory Gamble, have taken in the wake of Jones’s departure aren’t enough. He agrees the union needs to change how it elects its leadership.

“When you have a situation where there’s one-party rule, there’s a danger of complacency,” Masters said. “And there’s a danger of bureaucracy taking hold.”

Masters said that’s exactly what’s happened over the past several decades at the UAW. And he said the union has become too cozy with the automakers it bargains with on workers’ behalf, with UAW officials sitting on the boards of company-funded joint worker training centers that have been entangled in the corruption scandals.

Masters said the challenges facing the UAW are “deep and widespread going forward, in terms of trying to address the full implications of this scandal…which go beyond a few miscreant individuals, and raise questions about the institutional integrity of the union as a whole.”

Then there’s the other major weapon in the government’s arsenal: putting the UAW in some form of federal receivership. That’s happened in past union corruption cases, most notably the Teamsters.

U.S. Attorney Matthew Schneider says it’s not out of the question. “That’s one of the options, and we’ve said that from the very beginning,” he said.

But Schneider says it would be “premature” to make that call right now, since the government’s investigation is still ongoing.

Meanwhile, multiple signs—including the fact that Jones was charged in a criminal information rather than an indictment—point to Jones pleading guilty. But with multiple unnamed co-conspirators named in court documents, it’s clear more charges are coming.

The UAW released a statement about the charges, which reads in part:

“All UAW members including the UAW leadership are and should be angry about the charges of former UAW member Gary Jones and his alleged actions. This is a violation of trust, a violation of the sacred management of union dues, and goes against everything we believe in as a Union. Jones and all who betrayed the trust of our union should be held accountable to the fullest extent of the law, with no exceptions. The UAW – under the leadership of President Gamble and the entire IEB – moved last November to remove Jones from office and force his expulsion from the UAW. Action has been taken against other former UAW staff and officials who have violated Union policies or laws. As we continue to move forward under the leadership of President Rory Gamble and the IEB, we are continuing to implement the critical reforms necessary to ensure our union is free from the type of corrosive corruption we have witnessed from those who betrayed our trust."

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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