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Howes: UAW leaders have 'lost their way,' union culture is 'broken'

Daniel Howes
Detroit News

The most important thing to know about this new reform package is that it’s the third such effort in as many years. The last two UAW presidents touted reforms … and they’re now known as “UAW Official A” and “UAW Official B” in federal court papers.

It’s all just absurd. These leaders implicated in embezzlement and various schemes involving member dues are the same ones who attributed the widening union scandal to “a few bad apples” … and touted the ridiculously named “Clean Slate Agenda.”

Right. The staggering hypocrisy of the sidelined president, Gary Jones, and his predecessor, Dennis Williams, is exceeded only by the institutional denial targeted by the acting president’s new try at reform. This latest reckoning could come too late to avert a federal takeover of the 84-year-old union.

This is no longer the union built by the legendary Walter Reuther … a union whose leadership worked for the members … not for themselves. It’s a union whose leaders have lost their way. They’ve been corrupted by easy access to other peoples’ money.

Acting President Rory Gamble says he will sell “Cabin Four.” A cabin in name only, it’s a posh lakehouse built with non-union labor at the UAW’s compound in northern Michigan. Gamble says he will strengthen financial controls, hire an ethics officer and stiffen enforcement of those found to have misused union funds.

It’s all necessary, but hardly sufficient. The culture is broken, and the people who’ve presided over the mess are hardly the ones to fix it. Culture is a product of history … which can’t be changed … and leadership and people … which can.

A lack of union board turnover tells members and the feds that protecting its own remains Job One inside the UAW boardroom. Purging leadership would send a powerful signal that current leadership will succeed where its predecessors failed.

But there’s more the union can do:

First, the UAW should hire – and publicly identify – an independent outside investigator to assess the union’s governance, financial controls and corrupt practices. That’s what General Motors did five years ago in the face of its ignition-switch crisis – and it made the tough report public.

Second, the union should push to develop a system for what the business world calls “progression and succession.” That would establish a framework to identify, train and evaluate would-be leaders who understand they work for union members.

Third, a union that prides itself on being “democratic” with a small “D” should move to direct election of officers from the powerful caucus that chooses who can vie for the top leadership spots – and who can’t.

The Teamsters did that 30 years ago … one piece of its oversight agreement with the feds. Whether the UAW gets there remains to be seen, but real change is necessary for this cornerstone of the American auto industry.

Evidence of systemic reform rests in what people do, not what they say. How leaders deliver change will signal members and the feds just how serious they really are.

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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