The Death and Life of the United Auto Workers

By Brooks, Chris | In These Times, March 2020 | Go to article overview

The Death and Life of the United Auto Workers


Brooks, Chris, In These Times


Contract negotiations between the 400,000-strong United Auto Workers and Detroit's Big Three automakers always kick off the same way: with ritualized handshake ceremonies in front of the press pool, the UAW president grinning with each automaker's CEO.

But in 2015, the cozy routine at the UAW-Chrysler Training Center in Detroit devolved into an outright display of affection. UAW officials and Chrysler management flanked the stage (in matching polo shirts featuring interlinked organization logos) and merged into a sea of indistinguishable figures. Then, Fiat Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne pulled in UAW President Dennis Williams for a tight bear hug.

That night, things really started cooking.

The UAW team for bargaining with Chrysler, including lead negotiator and UAW vice president, Norwood Jewell, went out for dinner and drinks at London Chop House, an extravagant (and historic) restaurant and cigar lounge. Both Henry Ford II and former Ford (and then Chrysler) CEO Lee Iacocca have been among the dapper, A-list regulars to enjoy whiskey highballs there amidst the soft jazz and heavy cigarette smoke. Today, the restaurant-complete with working rotary phone booths (local calls only)-caters to the nostalgia of Motor City as the epicenter of global manufacturing, back when union leaders like Walter Reuther were household names.

The UAW's night out resulted in a hefty tab-and Chrysler footed the $8,494.37 bill. That dinner is just one of the many examples of union leaders taking payouts, according to a federal probe by the Department of Justice. Marchionne, Williams, Jewell and at least a dozen others have been named in a long-running conspiracy by Chrysler to buy off the UAW. In a December 2018 memo, federal prosecutors described "a culture of corruption" in which "lavish entertainment and personal freebies, all paid for by the car company" were "the rule rather than the exception."

The investigation also uncovered lucrative kickback schemes among union officials who awarded contracts for UAW-branded swag, like 58,000 gold watches that were left sitting in a warehouse. First, they would inflate an item's on-paper cost; then, when a training facility jointly operated by General Motors (GM) and the UAW paid for the items, they would receive some of the cost difference. Finally, multiple union officials embezzled millions from the UAW itself through fraudulent purchases and reimbursements to finance lavish lifestyles. Between 2014 and 2017, officials spent over a million dollars of the membership's money on resorts, golf, cigars, steak dinners and liquor.

To date, three Chrysler executives, seven union officials and the widow of a deceased UAW vice president have been convicted of crimes uncovered by the investigation. Two others have been indicted and more indictments are likely to come soon, including of former UAW President Gary Jones, who resigned less than two years into his term, following numerous allegations that he was part of a $1.5 million embezzlement.

Right-wing anti-union propagandists have been eager to weaponize this scandal. When Volkswagen workers in Chattanooga, Tenn., were considering joining the UAW in June 2019, the corporate-backed Center for Union Facts purchased billboards around the plant and ads in the local newspaper targeting the union's history of concessions and corruption, and even produced a video for social media featuring a shadowy "UAW whistleblower" with a voice modulated to sound like a baritone hell demon. "I would not bet on the promises made by the UAW that they will protect you because they will eventually sell you down the road for their own benefit," the voice growls over news reports about a GM plant closure.

The U.S. Attorney's Office, which is actively pursuing top UAW officials, has named the UAW itself as a conspirator, setting the stage for a possible government takeover. The government took a similar route 30 years ago to free the Teamsters from mafia control. …

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