Gary Jones was a dark-horse candidate when the UAW began the process in autumn 2017 of finding a replacement for President Dennis Williams, who planned to retire the following summer.
Two years later he is at the heart of contract talks with General Motors, the union’s strike target in this year’s negotiations, and of the largest scandal in the UAW’s history.
Williams was impressed with the work Jones (below, left) had done in UAW Region 5 across the western U.S., where the union draws members from the auto, aerospace and casino industries as well as graduate students from universities on the Pacific Coast. Jones also got along with other members of the executive board.
A certified public accountant with a degree from the University of Tulsa, Jones was a familiar figure around union headquarters in Detroit, having helped manage the UAW’s finances under presidents Steve Yokich and Ron Gettelfinger for more than a decade before becoming assistant director in 2004 of Region 5, where he had first joined the union when he hired in at a Ford plant in Oklahoma in the mid-1970s.
However, when he took over as president, Jones had little experience as a top negotiator, particularly in the auto industry, and he also had been a member of the UAW executive board while the scandal over misuse of training funds festered.
The scandal has engulfed two former board colleagues, the late General Holiefield, who was portrayed as a corrupt thief in federal court filings, and Norwood Jewell, who was sentenced to 15 months in prison.
A third former board member, Joe Ashton, is suspected of being “UAW Official 1” fingered by federal prosecutors in charges against Michael Grimes. Grimes was one of Ashton’s top assistants with the UAW-GM Center for Human Resources and now awaits sentencing on conspiracy and money-laundering charges.
The scandal has fed union members’ skepticism about Jones and the rest of the union’s leadership.
Slightly more than half of the GM, Ford and Fiat Chrysler workers covered by the current contracts have been hired since the end of the recession in 2010. They are younger, more diverse and better educated than in the 1980s, when GM executives estimated that more than 10% of hourly workers couldn’t read.
Factories are cleaner and better lit than they were 40 years ago, and the work usually requires less heavy lifting than in earlier times. But the pace is faster, notes one former auto worker who wrote a book about his experience.
Moreover, since the last recession auto workers’ status has slipped as wages have stagnated and new workers are stuck on lower tiers where they make roughly $16 per hour and have fewer benefits.
“Nobody wants the jobs,” James Philbeck, a member of UAW Local 2209 in Fort Wayne, IN, said before Detroit’s Labor Day parade. “I’ve worked there 24 years and I’ve never seen it this bad.”
Profit sharing has helped mitigate the loss of wage gains. But temporary workers, a growing part of the automotive workforce, are not eligible for profit-sharing checks from GM, Ford or FCA.
As the contract deadline approaches, Terry Dittes, head of the UAW’s GM Department, says the union expects the automaker to address several economic concerns.
“We remain committed to reaching an agreement that will provide the membership with a fair share of the of the enormous profits earned by the company,” Dittes said in a letter to union officials updating them on talks.
GM responded by saying the company needs a competitive contract to protect the health of the business.
Jones went out of his way in July to avoid the kind of chumminess that prevailed when negotiations began in 2015. Instead he put all three automakers on notice the union was seeking major improvements in wages and benefits this time.
The federal investigation presents an enormous challenge for the UAW’s leadership when it presents any tentative contract to union members for ratification.
The scandal literally wound up on Jones’ own doorstep when a dozen FBI agents raided his home in suburban Detroit, but he has not been charged with wrongdoing. UAW officials have said the raid was unnecessary because the union had cooperated in the federal investigation of the misuse of joint training funds for more than two years, blaming the problem on “a few bad apples.”
The scandal has taken a heavy toll on the UAW’s reputation as a union free of corruption, a point implicitly acknowledged by Jones when he announced a series of “reforms” announced earlier this year.
Fairly or not, commentary on the scandal, including editorials demanding Jones’ resignation, have undermined his credibility at a critical time even as UAW members were just getting to know him.
“In the absence of real information, speculation fills the vacuum,” observed Harley Shaiken, a University of California-Berkeley professor who has studied the UAW.
“I think he should step aside,” said Brian Keller, an hourly FCA employee and outspoken critic of Jones who says he doesn’t see how the UAW president can negotiate a credible contract.
However, another long-time critic of the UAW’s executive board, Gary Walkowicz of UAW Local 600 in Dearborn, MI, circulated a flier supporting the UAW president.
“If this next contract is another concession contract, I will oppose the leadership again,” Walkowicz said. “But…where the federal government raided the houses of UAW President Gary Jones and others, I am standing with the union leadership because what I see here is not the government trying to get rid of corruption. What I see is the government trying to weaken the unions or intervene in the unions in order to benefit big business.”