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The union I am privileged to lead suffered two troubling events this past week. First, a former high-ranking UAW official, now deceased, was implicated in an indictment from the Department of Justice accusing him and other co-conspirators of misappropriating funds from the UAW-Chrysler National Training Center (NTC). Second, workers at Nissan’s Canton, Miss. plant voted against unionizing, due in large part to the company’s exploitation of that indictment coupled with threats and intimidation of workers. I want to talk candidly about both these events and the connection between them because the men and women we represent and every American who cares about workers needs to know what’s really going on.
While no union dues funds were involved and safeguards have since been put in place at the NTC, the allegations in the DOJ indictment are appalling. A senior union leader allegedly conspired with Fiat Chrysler executives to misappropriate more than $2 million from the NTC for personal use. If true, these actions represent a grotesque betrayal of trust.
\I first learned of these issues in January of last year when we were contacted by government investigators at which time we immediately started an internal investigation. My first response was to commit to uncovering the facts and cooperating with the federal investigation, and we have delivered on that. My second response was to focus on steps we could take to make sure this type of thing never happens again. Toward that end, we worked with Fiat Chrysler to implement a set of detailed reforms at the NTC to mitigate the risk of future issues like this.
But as painful as these charges of criminal conduct have been for me and the entire union, I have never once questioned the fundamental integrity of our organization. Since news of this situation became public, our opponents have gleefully pushed their PR machine into overdrive to besmirch the entire union based on the conduct of just a small handful of bad actors, and advance their anti-worker agenda.
That brings me to the Nissan vote. We cannot know for sure what role the indictments played in the election, but there is no doubt it had an impact as we had a solid majority prior to the filing for election. We went into this organizing drive with high hopes. The UAW has a proud history in the south with more than 55,000 active members and 60,000 retirees. Last year alone more than 1,323 workers in the south voted to join the UAW, including Volkswagen workers in Tennessee who came back after a defeat in 2014 and voted to join us. The reason for their support is clear: the UAW delivers for our members.
We were the union that first negotiated employer-paid health insurance for industrial workers, secured the first cost-of-living adjustments and more recently secured profit-sharing programs that put thousands of extra dollars into the pockets of the workers who helped the companies rebound from the depth of the Great Recession.
Perhaps recognizing they couldn’t win on the facts, Nissan and its anti-worker allies went negative, running ads, flyers and brochures hyping the indictment to tarnish the UAW in the eyes of the voting Mississippi workers. Unfortunately, the scare tactics worked. The election was a setback for the UAW and the cause of working Americans everywhere. But a setback does not equal a defeat.
Those who committed these alleged crimes deserve to be brought to justice. But the suggestion by Nissan that such misconduct is a “union" issue is simply false.
Just look at Nissan itself. In March of this year, one of its diesel vehicles was found to be emitting 18 times more nitrogen oxide than the official lab-based test allows under EU regulations. Mitsubishi, the company Nissan recently acquired, had a similarly massive fuel efficiency cheating scandal going back decades. Yet Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn will this year receive not one, not two, but three separate multi-million-dollar salaries for his supposedly distinct roles as CEO of Renault, Nissan and chairman of Mitsubishi.
There seems to be a clear difference between unions and big corporations when it comes to our sense of accountability. Working Americans see it every day. And the pundits wonder why populist politicians are ascendant. Working people know that too often in America, corporations get away with systematic, company-condoned misconduct, while a union that is fighting for those working people gets vilified by those same corporations for the misdeeds of a few bad apples.
Nothing can ever excuse the malfeasance of those accused in the government’s indictment. But we will not let these events deter us in our mission. American workers need champions more than ever. We will be on the frontlines of that fight. It is my sincere hope that more working people across the country hear that message and think about the best way to stand up for their rights. It isn’t just by casting an angry vote at the ballot box in even numbered years. It is also by finding and joining a union that will stand up for you each and every day.
Dennis Williams is president of the UAW International Union.