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Howes: America's "clean union" no more

daniel howes
Daniel Howes
Detroit News

The UAW once prided itself on being America’s “clean union.” The latest evidence and eight federal convictions so far suggest that moniker no longer may be accurate.

A former UAW vice president, Norwood Jewell, is headed to federal prison for 15 months.

Mike Grimes, former administrative assistant to union Vice President Cindy Estrada, was charged this week with taking nearly $2 million in kickbacks from union vendors. Grimes could go to federal prison for up to 20 years.

The union labeled his alleged actions, quote, “shocking and absolutely disgraceful.” It touted its so-called “Clean Slate” reforms, passed after earlier convictions related to the misuse of funds meant for joint training centers funded by the Detroit automakers.

But more embarrassing charges may be on the way.

The criminal case against Grimes names two unidentified union officials, suggesting more indictments are coming. The feds portray “Union Official 1” as a powerful boss who steered a multi-million contract to his chiropractor, collected kickbacks and conspired with Grimes to award contracts to vendors in exchange for bribes totaling several million dollars.

And “Union Official 2” is depicted by the feds as an enforcer who ensured “Union Official 1” received his cut. The alleged corruption is head slapping — for its brazenness, arrogance, and greed.

The feds aren’t even close to being done. And all of this is happening while contentious negotiations between the union and Detroit’s automakers are speeding toward a September 14th deadline, amid gyrating markets and whispers of recession. What does this confluence of events mean? Nothing good for the union, its leadership or credibility with the rank-and-file.

The UAW and the automakers are negotiating their most consequential deal in more than a decade. With the corruption probe apparently picking up speed, it’s fair to ask just how much the investigation is distracting union leadership from their day jobs.

Rank corruption like the sort detailed in the latest criminal filing confirms the worst suspicions on the factory floor: namely, that the union’s leaders are far more interested in taking care of themselves than representing the interests of their dues-paying members.

The growing mountain of facts (and convictions) are bad, but the optics are worse. For example: if Estrada knew about Grimes’ alleged crimes, she at least looks corrupt. If she didn’t, after four years of working with him daily, she looks inept.

The questions now: where does the federal rollup of UAW leadership end … and with whom? Who will tidy the mess? And will America’s “clean union” end up under federal oversight, its reputation in tatters?

Answers to those questions may soon be more than hypothetical.

Daniel Howes is a columnist at The Detroit News. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

Daniel Howes is columnist and associate business editor of The Detroit News. A former European correspondent for The News, he has reported from nearly 25 countries on three continents and in the Middle East. Before heading to Europe in 1999, Howes was senior automotive writer and a business projects writer. He is a frequent contributor to NewsTalk 760-WJR in Detroit and a weekly contributor to Michigan Radio in Ann Arbor.
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