DETROIT — Its president has stepped aside. One former vice president is headed to prison, and two of the three chief negotiators during 2011 contract talks are accused of taking sizable kickbacks. Five other ex-officials have pleaded guilty to corruption-related crimes.
After two years downplaying the scandal as isolated misdeeds, the UAW is acknowledging the possibility of a federal takeover attempt that would threaten the union’s independence for the first time in its 84-year history. At the same time, it’s still working to seal contracts with two of the Detroit 3 after putting General Motors through a 40-day strike.
Embroiled in a corruption scandal that last week prompted the departure of President Gary Jones and expanded to include conspiracy charges against retired Vice President Joe Ashton, the UAW now has turned to Rory Gamble, a widely respected union veteran who could represent its last, best chance at reform from within.
Gamble, who became acting president after Jones requested and was granted a paid leave of absence, admitted he faces a “daunting task” in simultaneously rooting out corruption, selling a tentative contract to skeptical Ford Motor Co. workers and eventually negotiating a deal with Fiat Chrysler. That’s to say nothing of significant trade issues and a looming presidential election that would otherwise be top legislative and lobbying priorities.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt they’re in crisis,” Art Wheaton, a labor expert at Cornell University, told Automotive News. “But I think they’re taking a lot of the right steps. As long as they do a rigorous housecleaning of any other potential issues and change some of their processes, I think it’s fixable.”
Gamble said he’s planning a number of reforms and could outline them as early as this week. Without providing specifics, he promised to do more than what the union’s previous two presidents did through their “clean-slate” agendas, which included stricter vendor procurement processes and a new legal counsel. Both predecessors have since been implicated in the scandal.
Gamble admitted he’s “worried” about the possibility of racketeering charges that could place the UAW into federal receivership.”I’m confident with the plans and controls we’re going to be putting into place, the different mindsets, we can fix this thing,” he said in an interview hours after Ashton was charged. “But the government’s going to do what it’s going to do.”
The scandal has raised the potential of racketeering charges similar to those filed against the Teamsters union in the 1980s by then-U.S. Attorney Rudy Giuliani. The union went into receivership under the watch of federal officials until 2015 and remains under some oversight as part of a transition period that ends next year.
A UAW spokesman previously dismissed such a possibility as “salacious gossip” and “pure conjecture.” But Gamble’s concern hints at the graveness with which the union is now taking the situation.
“It’s always a possibility, and I don’t know that they can avoid it,” said Kristin Dziczek, vice president of industry, labor and economics at the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich. “Whatever the feds know, they know.”
The U.S. Justice Department, as of Friday, had brought charges against 13 people tied to the corruption scandal, 10 of whom were affiliated with the UAW. General Holiefield, who headed the UAW’s 2011 talks with FCA, died before the investigation began, but his widow is serving prison time. Three former FCA officials also pleaded guilty. Neither Jones nor Dennis Williams, the union’s president from 2014 to 2018, had been charged.
Todd Dunn, president of UAW Local 862, which represents workers at Ford’s Kentucky Truck and Louisville Assembly plants, is confident Gamble can fix the union from within.
“We’ve got to get our membership back behind the UAW,” Dunn said. “Whether you’re a president or a vice president, the only thing we should be focusing on is being exemplary leaders.”
Gamble, 64, said he plans to do just that, especially in light of the dues money that prosecutors say was misspent on extravagant vacations, champagne, cigars and golf clubs.
“We have to show them a continued process and make sure everybody’s doing what they need to be doing to protect their interests and protect their dues money,” Gamble said. “I don’t expect them to wave their hand and say, ‘Those guys are OK.’ I expect to go out and re-earn their trust.”
He was adamant that the 12 remaining members of the UAW’s International Executive Board — Gamble was not immediately replaced as vice president of the Ford department, and another board member, Vance Pearson, took a leave of absence in October after becoming the only current official charged so far — are clean and will not be swept up in the probe.
Labor experts said the fact that most of those charged had retired from the union is a defining difference between the UAW’s situation and what happened with the Teamsters.
“You had a few members making sweetheart deals and buying golf equipment and other nonsense,” Wheaton said. “I have not seen some of the same accusations [that were] brought up under Jimmy Hoffa and the Teamsters. I also don’t think there’s any evidence to show the federal government could do a better job than what the UAW is doing.”
The scandal is impacting Gamble’s ability to sell the tentative agreement reached with Ford on Oct. 30 to UAW members. He wanted to attend informational meetings with workers around the U.S. but said he’ll have to dial that back while addressing corruption-related issues. Gamble still plans to go to multiple nearby plants to help get the deal ratified. Voting ends Friday, Nov. 15.
It’s no small feat. Roughly 61 percent of voters at Chicago Assembly, the first major plant to cast ballots, rejected the deal.
The previous Ford contract passed by a slim margin, and many workers went into this year’s negotiations with even higher expectations.
In a highly unusual move that critics have argued was a ploy to buy votes, bargainers revised the tentative deal after voting had started to fix an entry related to raises. The change effectively fixes a loophole that would have kept some 10,000 newer workers who already got their annual raise this year from earning as much as workers whose 2019 anniversary date is after the contract takes effect, if it’s approved.
Rank-and-file members have complained that gains made to eventually raise temporary workers and in-progression workers to top wages are not enough. Some also grumbled about the lack of gains for retirees and the failure to reinstate cost-of-living wage increases. Ford workers instead get annual $1,500 bonuses to cover inflation.
In a joint statement, Local 249 Chairman Jim Fisher and President Jason Starr, who represent workers at Ford’s Kansas City Assembly Plant in Missouri, acknowledged a “significant amount of frustration” among members but urged them to vote yes. “Our organization is in crisis and is in a fight for its survival,” they wrote.
“We ask each and every member to explore their conscience, look at the reality of our situation and ultimately, we ask you to support the ratification of this tentative agreement because it is the correct decision to make at this time of crisis and positions us to rebuild our union for the future.”
Jackie Charniga contributed to this report.