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Howes: UAW may have a deal, but there's still a leadership problem

daniel howes
Daniel Howes
Detroit News

The longest United Auto Workers national strike against General Motors in nearly 50 years is done.

Well, not exactly.

Instead of ordering nearly 49,000 members back to work as the union prepares a ratification vote, its leaders voted to keep the walkout alive. The question is, why?

Sure, GM and the union agreed to a deal that looks pretty good. It includes 3% raises for workers in two years and 4% bonuses in the other two. The deal retains the best health care in the private sector, reduces the time it takes temporary employees to become permanent, and would pay record ratification bonuses of $11,000.

Plus, by the time all the raises and bonuses trickle into workers’ pockets, the union says members will be earning more than $32 an hour. That pretty much guarantees that GM will continue to have the highest hourly labor cost in the industry. And that’s not sustainable over the long term.

Still, this quadrennial negotiation dance is especially peculiar this year. Bargaining moved at glacial speed. It took more than a month after the deadline to reach a deal.

UAW President Gary Jones was nowhere to be seen publicly. He attended the private meeting called to consider the tentative agreement but not the press conference to announce the union’s plans. His absence would be mysterious if the reason for it wasn’t so obvious: Jones doesn’t want to face media scrutiny.

Why? Because it would devolve quickly into embarrassing questions about his implication in a continuing federal investigation into union corruption. We’re about to find out whether Jones’s role in the corruption scandal, or the federal raid on his home, will become impediments to ratifying what looks like a rich deal for the UAW.

Union leaders have taken steps to bridge Jones' yawning credibility gap. They're relying on broader representation at the bargaining table. They’re relying on a 200-person National Council to consider this week’s tentative agreement.

None of that is an accident.

Continuing to vest such considerable power in an embattled president would be the triumph of arrogance over common sense. Folks on the factory floor have long suspected their leadership of being more interested in furthering their own financial interests than safeguarding the interests of dues-paying members.

Let’s remember, the federal corruption probe that so far has charged 11 and produced nine convictions only deepens those suspicions. Sure, leading the longest national strike against GM in decades may score points with some of the members, but it’s not likely to stymie the feds.

Their crackdown on union corruption is exposing a culture of self-dealing that’s not yet fully known. And what it says isn’t good.

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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