There was a fire at the UAW’s headquarters in Detroit in July, a blaze that started in the IT department and spread to the PR wing, attracting nine fire engines and forcing the union to move to temporary quarters. Arson was ruled out a couple weeks later, but the timing, amid one of the biggest corruption scandals in the union’s history, was still, uh, hmm.
If nothing else, the metaphorical parallel is hard to ignore, an inferno that took out part of the heart of the operation without quite completely destroying it. So far 13 people are charged in the other one, with a federal investigation continuing and threat of a federal takeover looming. (You can find a good timeline of events here at Automotive News.)
One of the strangest things during all of this has been to watch the bureaucracy of the union—its paid staff—soldier on through a strike and contract negotiations with GM, Ford, and Fiat Chrysler. Stranger was former president Gary Jones sitting atop it all even as, two days before the GM strike began, The Detroit News reported that Jones had been implicated in the corruption scandal, identifying him as “UAW Official A.”
Jones resigned late last month, but by that time everyone had already read up on some of the things UAW Official A was accused of doing in court documents, the kinds of things I would edit out of a screenplay for being too on the nose.
Here’s an excerpt from a Detroit News story from November:
UAW Official A and [UAW official Edward Robinson] met again in March and talked about whether the government had obtained documents from the UAW and hotels involved in the embezzlement scheme, prosecutors said.
“UAW Official A told (Robinson) that he wished they ‘burned the records,’” prosecutors wrote.
During the same meeting, Jones reiterated he would provide for the financial well-being of one of Robinson’s relatives if Robinson took sole responsibility for the cash embezzlement, prosecutors wrote.
“We’ll take care of (the relative),” Jones said, according to the court filing. “I told you that we’d take care of it.”
The scheme, according to court documents and news reports, involved the embezzlement of potentially millions of dollars in members’ dues to fund personal luxuries like wine and a villa. The first charges in the case were made public in June 2017, a year before Jones became president. Since, there has been a steady drumbeat of more charges, guilty pleas, and arrests, cut against the backdrop of the union’s longest strike in decades, around which Jones was nowhere to be found.
The scandal would be embarrassing for any union, but there’s an extra layer of humiliation in the amateurishness and tastelessness with which it all allegedly unfolded. There are lots of cigars and golf in this world, and some extra tacky ‘80s nostalgia.
Here’s the Detroit News in September:
• The master account was allegedly used to pay Indian Canyons Golf Resort $80,000 between 2015 and 2018 for people identified only as “UAW Official A.” That included thousands of dollars spent at the resort’s pro shop on clothing, golf bags and shoes. The affidavit says that the UAW paid for 107 rounds of golf outside the conference dates at a cost of almost $9,000 to UAW membership.
• Through the master account, the affidavit alleges UAW officials spent $60,000 on cigars, humidors and cigar cutters between 2014 and 2018.
• Using a similar account at a different resort, the UAW spent $70,000 on golf at The Maderas Golf Club, The Grand Del Mar Golf Resort and The Torrey Pines Golf Club.
• Federal agents also found a similar arrangement at the Lodge of Four Seasons in Lake Ozark, Missouri. Agents found that more than $45,000 was spent by the UAW outside of conference dates in Lake Ozark on meals and liquor.
• The UAW spent $50,000 on two parties thrown “under the guise that they were dinners” for the International Executive Board, the union’s governing body. That included “thousands of dollars of ‘ultra-premium’ liquor, cigars, a torcedor (a person who rolls cigars) and ‘kandy girls’ (provocatively dressed women) to light the cigars for the UAW officials. If that alone were not enough, training funds were also spent on mojito tables and decorations to theme the event like the 1980’s hit T.V. show Miami Vice.”
(I should pause here to recommend The Detroit News’ work on this story and especially that of reporter Robert Snell.)
When Jones was elected to the presidency, the apparent focus of the federal investigation—or what was publicly known at the time—was bargaining corruption, after Al Iacobelli, an FCA vice president, pleaded guilty to offenses related to the Labor Management Relations Act.
Iacobelli also cooperated with officials, describing a scheme to pay off “senior UAW officials” some $1.5 million to get better terms for FCA during contract bargaining in 2011 and 2015 and helping to put in motion what many assume could happen any day now: charges for Jones and possibly others, even as the union itself desperately tries to move on.
In that vein, Rory Gamble, a UAW vice president who had been serving as acting president after Jones’ resignation, was appointed to the job until 2022 by the UAW’s board last week, and, this week, its FCA members are voting on a new contract with improved terms.
Gamble has said all the right things about cleaning things up, but at this point, talk is cheap, because he wouldn’t be the first in that job to say such things and do otherwise. The investigation, now in its fourth year, seems only to be picking up steam, in any case.
Was that just a random shit-happens fire at the headquarters in July? Probably, but the fact that anyone wonders otherwise says it all. I emailed the UAW to ask if a cause had been determined and will update this post if they respond.
Update, 5:34 p.m.: A UAW spokesman said, “The fire marshal determined long ago that there was no arson and it was caused by an equipment malfunction.”