Oct 7, 2002
On September 25, a U.S. federal grand jury indicted three former leaders of UAW Local 594, two of whom had led an 87-day strike against GM in 1997. The outcome of the strike included an agreement to hire 567 new workers and to pay to union members grievance awards totaling eleven million dollars.
Two of the three indicted were accused of prolonging the strike to settle back pay grievances of their own. And all three were accused of conspiring to get two people – a family member and a friend – included in the list of new hires for skilled trades, even though unqualified.
The fact is that GM – with whom the three supposedly colluded – is not being charged, even though it would have been just as guilty for cutting those supposed deals. But the government's suit is not about justice. It is about intimidation of officials in unions who are willing to lead a fight.
Over the years, Local 594 in Pontiac, Michigan, gained a reputation as one of the more militant UAW locals. It had often demanded that GM pay workers who had grievances. This contrasted with the many locals which settled grievances with management's promise not to do it again. In the mid-1990s, Pontiac management decided to stop paying many awards, stop settling manpower grievances and also to stop paying union officials for the overtime they worked in the plant. These moves were out and out violations of the contract, and therefore violations of the law; but no grand jury was called to look into GM.
In 1997, Local 594 officials led the workers in a strike. The strike lasted 87 days and did not please the top national UAW leadership, which preferred to emphasize partnership and cooperation with the bosses. The difficulty of such a long strike, combined with the lukewarm support by national officials, caused some division within the local. Soon after the strike was settled, some local members sued the local leaders, alleging they had prolonged the strike in order to settle their own grievances – that is, they took payoffs.
In fact, the so-called payoffs were no more than back pay, the overtime that the company owed them from before the strike, a small part of the total eleven million dollars paid out to hundreds of workers in the plant.
As for the matter of getting friends and family hired: it's favoritism, something workers in every plant detest. Did it happen at 594? Hard to know, given all the lies – but if it did, is that reason for a government prosecution? Almost every UAW plant is loaded with not only the friends and family of union officials, but more importantly, loaded with all the big and little bosses' friends and family who can't find other jobs. If the government wants to prosecute, there were plenty of other places to investigate – with lots bigger and worse examples of favoritism.
It's not just a coincidence that the government is selectively prosecuting only these few local leaders for something that goes on in every plant, every day. It's a message loud and clear to any and every union official in the country, that if they decide to fight their company, they could have to fight the government too. And the government will search until it finds a pretext.