The United Auto Workers is choosing its probable new leadership team after several devastating blows that include an expanding corruption scandal, failed attempts to organize Southern auto assembly plants and a shrinking number of manufacturing jobs that are its base.
"They have been knocked down in the 11th round and the ref is counting to see if they can get back up," said Dave Sullivan, a product analysis manager at AutoPacific, who worked at Ford on the assembly line and as a supervisor. "2018 will be a trying year for the UAW."
He said the union -- which represents more than 415,000 automotive workers, casino dealers, college teachers, agricultural equipment manufacturers and aerospace engineers -- has lost its influence and lacks a clear mission. A federal investigation into stolen worker training money makes things worse.
Meanwhile, union leaders are working to highlight accomplishments.
Under Dennis Williams, first as secretary-treasurer and then as president, the UAW has regained its financial footing, increased membership over the past seven years, won the first member-approved dues increase in decades and recruited new members from outside the auto industry. About 40 percent of UAW members come from other industries.
Now, Williams will retire after his 65th birthday and the union must find a way to navigate in a legal and political environment that has been hostile toward organized labor and to build on its recent gains.
Local union leaders from around the country are meeting this week in Detroit to choose a slate of officers.
That slate will campaign until June, when the 37th Constitutional Convention election takes place in Detroit. Challengers to union leaders' slate can run, but short of a full-fledged mutiny, those chosen this week will move up.
It is then that UAW delegates elect their new president.
Front-runners to succeed Williams include:
–– Gary Casteel, a secretary-treasurer who has led organizing efforts at auto assembly and parts as well as nonautomotive employers.
–– Cindy Estrada, a Detroit native who, as vice president of the union's General Motors department, oversees one of the training funds now under review by federal investigators.
–– Gary Jones, a regional director who oversees Missouri, Texas, Louisiana and the West Coast. He is widely considered the top choice as a detail-oriented certified public accountant whose thoughtful and fastidious approach may be what the union needs. Having started with the UAW at the Ford plant in Broken Arrow, Ala., he went on to serve as the union's top non-elected finance person for nearly a decade.
Williams is described as a leader who focuses on long-term strategy.
He has helped guide the union to a seven-year streak of membership growth and managed a solid budget. With his predecessor, Bob King, Williams helped push through the first member-approved dues increase since 1967.
As dues revenue declined with overall membership, the operating budget ran low and the UAW diverted money from its strike funds to cover losses.
The UAW's finances fully recovered in 2015 for the first time since the 2007-09 recession, and continue to improve in 2016. The strike fund grew from $633 million to $679 million, according to the union. Total assets, which include buildings and other property, went from $886 million to $934 million. The union's net income from operating funds increased from $5 million to $6 million in 2016.
"The state of the UAW is solid," Williams has said. "Our members are getting pay increases. I think you've seen the bonuses that came out with Ford, GM and Chrysler, and that was a success story."
The union represents college instructors in California, Michigan, Minnesota and New York; poker dealers in Las Vegas, Detroit, Baltimore, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Toledo, Columbus and Mashantucket, Conn.; workers at Miller, Coors Beer, Bacardi Rum, John Deere and Caterpillar. They build coffee makers, pizza ovens, battleships, tractors and whiskey barrels.
Analysts wonder whether a diversified membership dilutes UAW bargaining strength for its 59,000 Ford workers, 49,500 General Motors workers and 41,000 Fiat Chrysler workers and 102,000 members at auto suppliers. Retired members, most from the auto industry, exceed 700,000.
But auto manufacturing jobs continue to disappear as companies add automation and shift passenger car production outside the U.S. Asian and European automakers and suppliers, which employ more than half the autoworkers in this country, have kept unions out of U.S. plants.
Marick Masters, a business professor at Wayne State University, said diversifying into gambling and higher education can only take the UAW so far. Somehow, it must demonstrate continued relevance in the manufacturing sector.
"They need to make some major strides organizing within the industry," Masters said.
While the damage of the unfolding scandal shouldn't be underestimated, organizers say the union has always demonstrated resilience -- despite conflict among members, layoffs and the 2009 bankruptcies of Chrysler and General Motors.
The UAW, in its attempt to organize manufacturing plants this year, was crushed twice by a 2-1 ratio. Anti-union materials showed images of what appeared to be a post-apocalyptic Detroit and warned of what a UAW presence could bring.
In July, just weeks before a scheduled union vote at the Nissan plant in Mississippi, federal investigators indicted Al Iacobelli, former Fiat Chrysler vice president of labor relations, and Monica Morgan, widow of General Holiefield, former UAW vice president. Millions of dollars earmarked for UAW worker training was spent on unauthorized purchases including a $365,000 Ferrari, two solid gold fountain pens valued at $35,700, a pool and outdoor spa at Iacobelli's mansion.
Iacobelli retired in 2015 before to the start of contract negotiations. Investigators said Holiefield, who died in March 2015 from pancreatic cancer, and Morgan skimmed more than $1 million.
Daniel Lemisch, the acting U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan, has expanded the investigation to look at evidence of similar misuse of joint training funds at the UAW's programs with Ford and General Motors.
The UAW says it is fully cooperating with the FBI in the training money investigation.
Even if the investigation finds nothing more, the timing was bad.
In November, just days before the failed union vote at Fuyao Glass America in Moraine, Ohio, reports emerged that federal investigators requested records from UAW and management officials responsible for joint training funds at Ford and GM.
Management at the Chinese-owned Fuyao Glass, used the corruption investigation to discourage workers from voting for UAW representation.
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