DETROIT — The UAW’s constitutional convention this week offers a chance to reset for a troubled union desperate to move beyond its corrupt past by providing top officials a platform to tout reforms and rally support from members who now have the direct power to choose their next leaders.
But a harsh report by the union’s court- appointed monitor days before the gathering challenges the notion that the UAW has learned from its past misdeeds and may fuel long-simmering demands from disgruntled rank-and-file workers for more substantial turnover at the top.
Monitor Neil Barofsky described efforts by the UAW to obstruct and interfere with his office’s investigations by allegedly concealing evidence and excluding the monitor’s office from key International Executive Board meetings. President Ray Curry and other leaders became cooperative only after the Department of Justice was called in to discuss possible breaches of the UAW’s six-year consent decree, the report said.
To underscore the scope of the corruption probe, Barofsky’s office revealed that it has 19 investigations underway. Meanwhile, news emerged last week that the two former presidents and four other officials convicted of embezzling union funds were let out of prison early to serve the rest of their sentences at home.
“If you’re a UAW worker and you read the monitor’s report, you might get the idea not much has changed from the bad old days,” Erik Gordon, a professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross Business School, said in an interview. “I think you’re pretty discouraged.”
UAW spokeswoman Sandra Engle, in a statement, said the union remains committed to rebuilding trust, creating robust reforms and transforming its culture.
“We have proven that with a myriad of already implemented changes to policies and the creation of processes that ensure accountability,” she said. “The report is lengthy and documents a sometimes-difficult process, but it ends on a note that we are on the right path.”
Curry is expected to focus on that message this week as he seeks nomination for his first full term in office. He replaced Rory Gamble, who retired, last year in part with the goal of bringing longer-term stability atop the union.
In the past, the multiday convention culminated in the virtually uncontested election of the current leadership’s hand-picked slate of successors. This year, that election will occur in the fall because workers approved a referendum to implement a new system that gives each member the power to vote directly.
Despite the new election system, damning monitor report and a recent investigation of Curry — he was ultimately cleared of wrongdoing in relation to use of tickets he received as a gift — union observers say he remains the favorite to stay in office.
“There’s a huge advantage always in any political race for the incumbent,” Art Wheaton, director of labor studies at Cornell University, said in an interview. “Getting that name recognition for the initial vote will be difficult [for other candidates] but for the subsequent years, it gives people the opportunity to become more well-known in the union.”
Others seeking nomination include Brian Keller, a Stellantis worker who is active on social media and previously ran against former President Gary Jones with little support. Shawn Fain, an international administrative representative in the UAW’s Stellantis department, also intends to run.
This year’s convention also will introduce nominees for two of the three vice president roles, following the planned retirements of Terry Dittes, who heads the General Motors department, and Cindy Estrada, the union’s top negotiator with Stellantis.
The hundreds of delegates expected to attend will vote on two sets of UAW constitutional amendments related to the upcoming elections, as well as on other proposed changes, including whether to more quickly implement recently increased strike payments.
The conventions are largely procedural but often include rousing speeches and videos meant to fire up the crowd. The 2018 convention included video tributes from actor Danny Glover and former President Barack Obama for the retiring Dennis Williams, who ended his final speech to a standing ovation and “Eye of the Tiger” blasting over speakers. He was later joined on stage by the newly elected Jones. Both men were convicted as part of the corruption scandal.
“There will be lots of rhetoric and lots of trying to make people feel good about being part of the organization,” Gordon said. “I think you’re going to see a highly choreographed pageant.”