Three thousand delegates and members of the United Auto Workers will descend on Detroit next week for their Constitutional Convention.
They’ll hear happy talk about organizing gains, three years of fiscal discipline and fiery rhetoric, because that’s what these sessions are for. Fire up the membership in advance of next year’s bargaining with the Detroit automakers and others.
It’s what the folks leading today’s UAW won’t be talking about that matters. The union’s three joint-training centers funded by the Detroit Three remain under a federal corruption investigation.
It’s already forced the early retirement of a sitting vice president, who chose not to finish his term after the feds raided his home. It forced another retired VP to abruptly resign his seat on General Motors’ board of directors. It persuaded the secretary-treasurer to relinquish his spot on the proposed leadership slate for the next four years.
The feds are combing records of non-profits with ties to current and former union leaders.
They’re reviewing expenditures of training center funds provided by the automakers according to agreements reached in collective bargaining.
They’re questioning junior staff about spending practices and sexual harassment allegations inside auto plants, particularly Ford Motor’s Chicago Assembly.
The feds aren’t finished. And business as usual it’s not, whatever spin comes from the rostrum at Cobo Center. Government investigators are shining a harsh light on the backscratching and self-dealing all too common among some of the union’s senior leaders.
And that affirms the worst fears on the factory floor. Namely, that the union brass is more interested in enriching itself than enriching the people who do the work and pay the dues.
It’s not supposed to work this way inside a cornerstone of Detroit’s modern-day auto industry. Members should expect their leaders to represent rank-and-file interests first. So far, no dues money is implicated in the scandal. But corporate money earmarked for members in training center budgets is.
Union President Dennis Williams says the, “misconduct did not affect the negotiation” of “our collective bargaining agreements.” The feds are trying to prove otherwise, but it won’t be easy. Proving petty corruption inside at least the UAW-FCA training center is less difficult.
Legendary UAW President Walter Reuther famously warned against letting union folks manage money earmarked for members. The temptation, he said, is too great. This mess hanging over the union as delegates gather to pick a new slate of leaders is proving ol’ Walter right.
The UAW delegates have more than a few things to celebrate in Detroit next week. Their employers are prosperous. There are steady, if modest, gains in membership. Profit-sharing payouts hover near record levels. And the guy in the White House is putting action behind his lip service to strengthen America’s industrial heartland.
But the feds are still rummaging through the training center books, interviewing junior staff and scouring non-profits tied to current and former leaders. That’s a whole lot of not good for a venerable Detroit institution.
I’m Daniel Howes of The Detroit News.
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.