In the UAW: Corruption Probe and Union Democracy

In April, 2021, AUD filed an Amicus Brief in support of a rank-and-file caucus in the UAW, UAWD (Unite All Workers for Democracy), who filed a Motion to Intervene in the negotiations between the UAW and the U.S. Justice Department in formulating and implementing a Consent Decree. The consent decree was in response to the government’s corruption probe into UAW. The motion argued that the Consent Decree, while already published, had failed to consider the views of the UAW’s largest rank-and-file caucus.
AUD’s Amicus argued that granting the motion was in the best interests of all parties in achieving the goal of a transparent, non-corrupt and democratic UAW, as based on experience in other unions, the scholarly literature, and legal precedent on the issue. The Judge supervising the Consent Decree declined the motion but did allow that the UAWD could file Amicus Briefs with the Court on any future issues that came before it regarding the ongoing enforcement of the Decree.


How the Mighty Have Fallen

For more than seventy years, the UAW has been governed by the same caucus that once counted the famed Walter Reuther – President of the UAW, civil rights activist, and Labor spokesman – as its leader. The Administration Caucus has prided itself for many of those years on its supposed commitment to the values of union democracy;
“Each member shall have the right to…vote in free, fair and honest elections. Operations shall be conducted in a democratic and fair manner. No corruption, discrimination, or anti-democratic procedures shall ever be permitted under any circumstances.” Thus states the UAW Ethical Practices Codes.
That self-promotion, while always dubious in the eyes of some quarters of the UAW, has now been tarnished by a long federal investigation into corruption in the once mighty industrial union and its consequent revelations. In September of 2019, former president of the UAW, Gary Jones’ home was raided by federal law enforcement agents and resulted in a further expansion of the government’s probe into corruption in the auto industry and, specifically, allegations that union officials were receiving bribes from management. The same month, Vance Pearson, director of UAW Region 5 and a member of the International’s executive board was charged with embezzling union funds and money laundering. At issue was the funneling of monies from the Big Three auto makers through “Joint Funds” and then into the treasury of the UAW, all done without reporting said income to the Department of Labor for more than two decades. Such funds were used as kickbacks for union officials willing to sign on to more management friendly CBAs, according to allegations.
One of the main vectors of the money laundering operation was the UAW-GM Center for Human Resources, located on a riverfront vista in Detroit, Michigan. Hundreds of millions of dollars were siphoned from General Motors to the UAW under the aegis of “Joint Funds Reimbursements,” a catch all term for kickbacks. In the midst of the forty-day UAW strike at GM, both labor and management decided to sell off the property and managed to do so in October of last year.
By November 2019, the heat had become too intense for President Jones, who resigned the presidency after numerous censures by the International Executive Board and has since pleaded guilty to tax evasion, racketeering, and embezzlement. He was replaced by Rory Gamble, who commented to the Detroit News “…that the UAW has been shamed by ‘a whole lot of bad actors’ and that ‘I’m fighting to save my union”. Such statements have been met with skepticism by some members of UAW local 600, who remember the role Gamble played in a disputed 2001 leadership election in that local.
In the interim, fourteen other convictions became forthcoming, including former UAW president Dennis Williams, who was implicated by Gary Jones’ testimony to federal prosecutors. In May, Williams was sentenced to twenty one months in prison for his part in the UAW corruption scandal. According to the Department of Justice:
“Williams was convicted of conspiring with at least six other senior UAW officials in a multi-year conspiracy to embezzle money from the UAW for the personal benefit of himself and other senior UAW officials. UAW officials concealed hundreds of thousands of dollars in personal expenditures in the cost of UAW conferences held in Palm Springs, California, Coronado, California, and Missouri. Between 2010 and 2018, former UAW President and co-defendant Gary Jones and other UAW officials submitted fraudulent expense forms seeking reimbursement from the UAW’s Detroit headquarters for expenditures supposedly incurred in connection with UAW leadership and training conferences. In truth, however, Williams and his co-conspirators used the conferences to conceal the hundreds of thousands of dollars in UAW funds spent on lavish entertainment and personal spending for the conspirators.”
In the wake of said findings and convictions, the Department of Justice filed a civil lawsuit against the UAW “seeking equitable relief to bring about reform and oversight of the union”. On January 30th, 2021 U.S. District Judge David Lawson placed a six year consent decree on the union and appointed former Federal prosecutor Neil Barofsky as an independent monitor, charged with the duty to investigate corruption and promote internal reform to that end. United States Attorney Saima S. Mohsin has stated of Barofsky; “We believe that oversight by an Independent Monitor will help to ensure that the rights and interests of the UAW’s membership are protected. I am confident that Neil Barofsky will provide tough but fair oversight of the UAW.”
Also included in the consent decree is an order that the UAW must hold a membership wide referendum on amending the union constitution to allow “one member one vote” in electing leadership at both the local and international level contra the current system of electing delegates who then elect leaders. This current system has allowed the same caucus to, in effect, dominate the ruling apparatus of the UAW.
Concurrent with the corruption investigation, its subsequent convictions and consent decree is the rise of a new reform movement within the UAW, known as Unite All Workers For Democracy (UAWD). The reform caucus has spearheaded two parallel campaigns within the union; one, to investigate and eradicate the corruption indulged in by too many officials in the administration and two, to seek direct elections of officers at both the Regional and International level. Their cause has been vindicated in a sense by the imposition of the consent decree, though the struggle continues. The caucus seeks myriad other reforms to make their union more democratic, transparent, and responsive to its membership.
“We have lots of organizing to do,” said Scott Houldieson, a leader within UAWD.

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