Detroit — United Auto Workers President Gary Jones stepped aside Saturday, 16 months into a rocky tenure leading one of the nation’s largest and most powerful labor unions — a union beset by corruption and accusations he helped steal $2.2 million from blue-collar workers.
Jones did not resign as president of the union, his attorney, Bruce Maffeo, told The Detroit News. Jones is taking paid leave. Vice President Rory Gamble, head of the union’s Ford Department, will serve as interim president effective Sunday.
“The UAW is fighting tooth and nail to ensure our members have a brighter future. I do not want anything to distract from the mission,” Jones said in a statement following a vote by the union’s Executive Board. “I want to do what’s best for the members of this great union.”
Under agreement with the UAW, according to a source familiar with the situation, Jones would be obligated to reimburse the union for pay received while on leave should he be convicted in connection with the federal corruption investigation. His decision to step aside came two days after The News identified Jones as the unnamed “UAW Official A” accused by prosecutors of conspiring with a top aide to steal as much as $700,000 in member dues.
“Executives in trouble try to position themselves as making a sacrifice for the good of the organization by using the ‘in order to avoid distraction’ claim when they step aside,” said Erik Gordon, a professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. “Jones could help the union more by resigning than by going on leave and continuing to take pay. The union may have reacted too late and too weakly to credibly claim that it values integrity in its top leaders.”
The leadership change comes as federal authorities intensify their continuing investigation into UAW corruption, a nationwide probe stretching from Solidarity House in Detroit to northern Michigan, the Ozarks in Missouri and the desert of southern California, a perennial favorite of union leadership.
And the shakeup follows the union’s six-week strike against General Motors Co. that ended in a ratified pattern agreement quarterbacked by Jones, as well as a comparatively quick and amicable tentative agreement with Ford Motor Co. Negotiations will turn to Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV once UAW-Ford members ratify a contract.
The accusations leveled by prosecutors that Jones stole money and tried to cover-up the crime convinced members of the UAW’s governing board that Jones, who survived a mutiny threat in September after federal agents raided his home, could no longer remain in office. All that was left was negotiating terms of his exit, including whether the UAW would continue paying his legal fees, according to a source familiar with the investigation.
The leave for Jones comes after The News identified him as “UAW Official A” in a criminal filing Thursday accusing him and a top aide of conspiring to embezzle as much as $700,000, splitting the money and pocketing it. Sources familiar with the investigation have said the unnamed official is Jones, who has not been charged with wrongdoing. The News first identified Jones as “Union Official A” in September.
The alleged conspiracy outlined in court records Thursday includes a failed cover-up, attempts to obstruct the investigation, labor leaders using burner cell phones to thwart federal agents and a promised payoff designed to shield Jones from prosecution.
Jones’ aide Edward “Nick” Robinson, 72, of St. Louis, president of a regional UAW community action program council, was formally charged Thursday and accused of conspiring with Jones and other UAW officials — including “UAW Official B,” whom sources identify as former President Dennis Williams — to embezzle more than $1.5 million in member dues and spend the money on private villas, meals, rounds of golf, golf gear, cigars and alcohol.
Robinson’s charges include conspiracy to embezzle union funds and conspiracy to defraud the United States, felonies punishable by up to five years in federal prison.
At the UAW’s special bargaining session in March at Cobo Center, the union distributed a list of 10 reforms the union had implemented and would make to prevent further corruption. It was called “The UAW’s Clean Slate,” and largely replicated reforms presented by Williams in 2017. The list included a three-bid process for awarding contracts, stricter oversight of staff expenditures, requirements for disclosing conflicts of interests and a gift ban.
Jones, who was elected in June 2018 to become the 12th president of the international union, made a rare appearance before members of the news media at the March conventions with three minutes of remarks. A union spokesman said Jones wanted to be the “reform president.”
“I am deeply saddened and irritated that some leaders in this union and some leaders at the auto companies exploited their positions to benefit themselves,” Jones said at the time. “It is my responsibility from this day forward to strengthen your trust in your union.”