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Editor James Bennett's column: Ex-UAW president's betrayals were like punches that landed on every union member's chin

BIZ-UAW-PLEA-GET

United Auto Workers President Gary Jones speaks at the opening of open the 2019 GM-UAW contract talks in Detroit. 

Former United Auto Workers President Gary Jones pleaded for mercy at his sentencing on corruption charges last week.

It’s unclear whether Jones, 63, was weeping for himself or for the union movement that he single-handedly destroyed with his vanity and corruption.

Jones stole nearly $1.5 million from the UAW members and spent it on fancy cigars, swank resorts, custom golf clubs, liquor and other luxuries. He was sentenced to at least 28 months in prison, a term that will be longer if he fails to work with the federal government in an ongoing investigation. 

 “I apologize to my UAW family for this betrayal of trust and pray that they will forgive me," said Jones, who recently moved to Texas and likely will serve his time there.

The union represents 400,000 active members and 580,000 retirees. Jones will be required to make more than $550,000 in restitution to the UAW and $42,000 to the IRS. 

“He was a good man who found himself … in a culture of corruption, which was the leadership of the United Autoworkers Union,” Assistant U.S. Attorney David Gardey told Judge Paul Borman.

Jones was a UAW member for 45 years. He was president between June 2018 and November 2019, and his fraudulent behavior was uncovered on the heels of another UAW president, Dennis Williams, going to prison for embezzling union dues and tax evasion. 

Jones was the 16th defendant convicted in an ongoing criminal investigation into corruption within the UAW. That’s unprecedented in modern times.

“The fact that two former international UAW presidents will be going to prison after being convicted of embezzling UAW dues money demonstrates that no one is above the law,” Acting United States Attorney Saima S. Mohsin said in a statement. “The working men and women of the UAW can feel that justice was done, and that their union is on the road to reform.”

That’s easier said than done.

The UAW is a barometer of other unions in the country. With back-to-back scandals punching members in the stomach, rank-and-file auto workers have declared their mistrust in leadership and reluctance to follow their vision. 

A recent union attempt at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga was voted down, not because the company fought it at every turn, but because workers did not trust the UAW with their money. Political leaders felt no push back when they campaigned against the union, a test of wills they would not have pursued without the weakened UAW.

During the 2019 General Motors strike, the UAW went to the bargaining table with almost no leverage. The talks dragged on for 40 days as the Detroit automaker demanded concessions and wanted to gut health benefits.

UAW President Rory Gamble, who stepped in for Jones during the strike, had had his hands tied at times because of the scandal. If he cannot clean up the union’s dirty laundry, it might spell the end times for union membership.

“As we have committed to our membership, when the UAW finds there has been wrongdoing, we will take all available actions to hold that person accountable regardless of status within the organization,” Gamble said.

Automakers in Alabama have kept unions out of their factories but not completely. Several parts suppliers are unionized. 

Organizing is tough in shops owned by Honda and other Japanese automakers. All workers benefit from UAW contracts at GM, Ford and Fiat-Chrysler, but finding members at foreign-owned companies is nearly impossible. The UAW had been clean since forming in 1936. None of that matters now.

Unions were desperately needed in the auto industry for decades and of late as it spread across the country with assembly lines for cars, trucks and SUVs. The foundation is trust in the roller-coaster world of auto jobs, which included frequent layoffs and furloughs. It’s difficult to see how it can be reestablished. 

The actions of leadership were an absolute slap in the face to every hard-working union member. Those paycheck deductions used to be worth the money because the UAW negotiated great health benefits, livable wages, vacations and bonuses. 

Now, the men and women inside union halls from coast to coast will have tough decisions to make going forward. Rebuild their passion and trust, or lose membership.

U.S. Attorney Matthew Schneider pointedly told the union to reform itself or face a possible government takeover. Imagine that. 

“The workers haven’t changed,” Schneider said. “They’re going to work and doing their jobs. The leadership has progressively gotten worse and corrupt. The leadership has really lost its way.”

The government took control of the Teamsters union more than 30 years ago after the heyday of Jimmy Hoffa.

“Well, if it was good for them, I want to learn more about how it can be applied to the UAW,” Schneider said.

The UAW scandal reflects negatively on unions as a whole. Imagine organizers at Amazon, for example, attempting to explain the benefits of representation in this climate. The pitches would sound like a sham. 

“There’s a pretty long list of why unions are a pain in the ass,” union organizer Jane McAlevey said in an interview with Jacobin magazine after Amazon workers rejected representation in Alabama. “And yet we still have no choice but to build good unions, because there isn’t any way to actually win democracy under capitalism unless there’s industrial workforce democracy.”

Solidarity will get even more elusive, though, if dues-paying members think leaders are puffing on cigars and sipping whiskey at their expense.

 

 

 

James Bennett is Executive Editor. Contact him at 256-235-3540 or jbennett@annistonstar.com.