After strike, scandal, United States auto union faces reckoning

NEW YORK (AFP) – All fall, as the United Auto Workers (UAW) launched and ended a lengthy strike amid contract talks with Detroit’s ‘Big Three’ manufacturers, the union has been shadowed by a growing corruption probe.

The scandal – which led to last week’s leave of absence announcement from UAW President Gary Jones – has centred on bribes and kickbacks as well as revelations that some union officials and auto executives effectively stole money meant for worker training and spent it on golfing outings, pricey cigars and fancy meals.

From all appearances, hourly workers have set aside frustrations with UAW leadership during the crunch period of contract talks, backing a 40-day strike at General Motors that ended last month before negotiations with Ford and then Fiat Chrysler.

But once the dust settles and the contracts have been ratified, the UAW will be at a crossroads, labour experts said.

“During the strike they had to ignore it and put it on the backburner,” Joshua Murray, a Vanderbilt University sociologist, said of worker anger at the corruption probe. “But they recognise that the leadership has lost their confidence and there needs to be a reckoning.”

United Auto Workers (UAW) member Joe Ryan leads a gathering last month as General Motors workers voted to ratify a new contract. PHOTO: AFP

Just how much the UAW will change remains unknown at this point. But the upheaval is also coming at a time of flux in United States (US) politics, with leading Democratic presidential contenders like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren favouring a more muscular approach towards corporate power and wealth.

The UAW, for its part, has unveiled ‘clean slate’ reforms to tighten audits of training centres and stiffen oversight of travel expenses and credit card spending.

The union’s clout has diminished in the US in recent decades as foreign automakers have built plants in anti-union southern states, mirroring a broader decline in organised labour. The share of the auto manufacturing workers represented by a union fell to 17.3 per cent in 2018 from 29.1 per cent in 2005, according to Unionstats.com.

Jones, who has not been indicted, was replaced by Rory Gamble as Acting President. Gamble is from Ford, the only one of the Big Three not implicated in the bribery scandal.

Gamble has said corrupt labour figures should be brought to justice and he promised more reforms.

He told the Detroit Free Press that he hopes the union can avoid a government intervention, such as a receivership.