We are long-retired public relations directors of the United Automobile Workers. We know something about its institutional code of silence. That ethos is not serving the union now. We cannot, in good conscience, continue to mutter privately while biting our tongues publicly, as many of our former and current UAW colleagues are doing.
We know that with 48,000 UAW members out on picket lines, it may seem that this is not a good time for us to be speaking up. Let us say clearly, then, that we want the union we love and the union we served to win a contract with General Motors that fully meets the membership’s needs.
But whatever the strike’s outcome, the UAW’s crisis will continue.
Our arena of expertise is public relations, but the slow-motion catastrophe that engulfs the union today is not a public relations problem. It’s a corruption problem the full extent of which is not yet even known. Based on the number of indictments, guilty pleas and raids so far, it’s obviously not just one or two rotten apples. It’s a whole bushel.
Bad as it is, massive corruption is not the darkest cloud shadowing this necessary and long-revered organization. What stands revealed is that today’s UAW has completely lost its way in respect to mission and purpose.
UAW can't fix what it won't acknowledge
The evidence is clear. Elected officers and board members have proved incapable of even acknowledging the extent of corruption, let alone fixing it. Their strategy has been to claim full cooperation with federal investigators and to adopt new joint program accounting controls.
This approach conveniently and completely ignores what a court filing on the indictment of UAW officer Vance Pearson called “a multi-year conspiracy involving senior UAW officials embezzling, stealing, and unlawfully and willfully abstracting and converting UAW funds to purchase luxury items and accommodations for their own personal benefit.”
Pearson remained an officer in good standing and only recently started a leave of absence during which he might still be getting paid. Not one International UAW officer or staff member publicly called for him to step down. The UAW seems to have outsourced its ethics to officials of the Trump administration.
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What this means is that UAW leaders have abandoned all pretense of performing the self-policing functions that were hallmarks of the squeaky clean organization built by the union’s earlier generations.
This head-in-the-sand posture is unacceptable to us, and it should be unacceptable to all active and retired UAW members and to concerned citizens everywhere. It is time for radical remediation.
The members of the union’s International Executive Board should resign. All of them. Senior staff assisting officers and board members are themselves “see no evil, hear no evil” enablers. They, too, should resign.
For the time being at least, the joint company-union programs that became pipelines for embezzlement should be suspended. An interim team should be assembled to operate the union and rapidly develop a process to transparently and democratically reconstitute the leadership of the UAW. We suggest that Unifor, which includes the former Canadian Autoworkers Union, be asked to assist in this process. Like the UAW, Unifor now represents workers in many sectors of the economy.
There are times when only a fresh start can save a valued institution. For the UAW, this is that time.
The Rev. Peter Laarman directed the UAW’s public relations department from 1985 to 1990. Frank Joyce directed the department from 1990 to 2002. This column originally appeared in the Detroit Free Press.
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This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: UAW officials steeped in corruption. Auto workers deserve better.