There’s never a good time for unions to have a major corruption scandal or a “me-too” moment.
Members of two AFL-CIO affiliates currently in the throes of such organizational embarrassment have good reason to fear that the effectiveness of their national unions has been adversely affected. Not to mention the reputation of organized labor as a whole.
Both labor organizations—the United Auto Workers (UAW) and the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE)—face big organizing, bargaining, or political challenges. These only get harder to overcome when top officials are under investigation for legitimate reasons.
The most widely publicized of these leadership scandals is engulfing the Detroit-based UAW. On November 20, UAW President Gary Jones resigned from his top elected position and retired from the union, shortly after his executive board colleagues announced they were seeking his removal for the “submission of false, misleading, and inaccurate expense records.”
Jones had been on a leave of absence, triggered by an FBI raid on his home in August. For several years, the Justice Department has been gathering evidence that UAW officials, past and present, have treated a national training fund, jointly administered with Fiat Chrysler, as a personal piggy bank and key source of political patronage within the union.
As Labor Notes has reported, “13 people have been indicted for criminal activity as part of this probe, including three Fiat-Chrysler executives and ten UAW officials.” As the New York Times noted Nov. 21, “the corruption went far beyond garden variety embezzlement and personal enrichment.”
The “cozy back-scratching culture” fostered by UAW-Fiat Chrysler joint programs has, according to General Motors, resulted in favored union treatment of one auto firm over the other. In a just-filed racketeering suit. GM is now seeking billions of dollars in damages from Fiat Chrysler for its alleged bribery of union officials. (See https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/20/business/gm-fiat-chrysler-lawsuit.html )
A Serial Harasser?
Meanwhile, J. David Cox, national president of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), has taken a paid leave of absence, due to his union’s “me-too” moment.
That began in late October when Bloomberg News published the first of three investigative reports by Josh Eidelson, a union organizer turned journalist. Eidelson interviewed ten past or present AFGE staffers who said they had witnessed or experienced personal misconduct by Cox, a third term AFGE president and former veterans’ hospital nurse.
According to these sources, 66-year old Cox “made inappropriate comments about subordinates’ bodies, invited a secretary to shower with him, and suggested he was aroused around colleagues.” His accusers said such “behavior has driven away talented employees, violated labor’s values, and undermined the union’s mission.” One called it “the worst-kept secret at AFGE.”
One Washington, DC headquarters staffer who quit after repeated sexual harassment by Cox was AFGE’s 31-year old communications director, Brett Copeland, now a Democratic Party activist in Iowa. “I really love the union,” Copeland told Eidelson. “But I cannot imagine ever having to work for him again.”
In a second Bloomberg story on November 14, others described an AFGE headquarters where “complaints about inappropriate behavior, bullying and bias” were not properly investigated or resolved. (https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-11-14/harassment-culture-of-fear-flourished-at-federal-workers-union)
One of the whistle-blowers quoted in this account was Caniesha Washington, an AFGE staffer for 12 years and former leader of its in-house union.
Washington says she’s speaking out now in the hopes of “keeping this from happening in the future. Dismantling the culture of fear and intimidation is part of recovering from this. It can’t be business as usual.”
Politically Motivated Attacks?
Cox himself has publicly dismissed the accusations against him as “lies and scurrilous, politically-motivated attacks.” He encouraged AFGE’s 300,000 members “not to be distracted from the task at hand,” which is fending off daily Trump Administration attacks on federal workers.
In the meantime, AFGE’s national executive council is moving much more slowly than the UAW’s top body did, to push its tarnished president out of a job paying about $300,000 a year, in total compensation.
Former AFGE President John Gage told Bloomberg that the quickest way to resolve the scandal was “for Cox to resign” for “the good of the union.” But Gage and four other past officials also urged the current national leadership to investigate who else “may have enabled or covered up this alleged corrupt culture within our union.”
That probe has now been contracted out to Jenny Yang, a former chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission under President Obama. AFGE is apparently refraining from taking any internal action against Cox until her findings and recommendations are received. In an email to AFGE employees obtained by Bloomberg, Yang described her mission as scrutinizing AFGE’s “culture and climate” and its “policies and practices” to “ensure a fair and inclusive working environment.”
There is definitely no UAW-style “cozy back-scratching culture” for AFGE to fall back on in its current dealings with management. Quite to the contrary, the contract protections and workplace rights of its members are under assault in every federal agency, a threat that Cox very much underplayed just after Trump’s election. (“I’ve been on this merry -go-round before,” Cox told the Washington Post in December, 2016. “We’re still going to have a federal government. We’re still going to have federal employees.”)
Now, at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), AFGE’s largest single bargaining unit, thousands of workers risk losing their jobs if further privatization leads to downsizing of their agency. (See https://www.counterpunch.org/2019/06/07/under-guise-of-choice-trump-launches-assault-on-veterans-care/ ) Trump appointees, like VA Secretary Robert Wilkie, are evicting AFGE local unions from long occupied office space on federal property. Federal employees have been told that they can no longer represent their co-workers in grievance hearings or participate in labor-management meetings, at government expense.
Adding Insult to Injury
On Nov. 21, Wilkie added insult to injury in a cheeky public letter to AFGE Secretary-Treasurer Everett Kelley, who is filling in for Cox. A former staffer for Congressional Republicans, the VA Secretary expressed concern that AFGE has “allowed a culture of sexual harassment to develop and thrive at the highest levels.” While busy undermining AFGE in his own management role, Wilkie demanded that Kelley personally “protect VA employees who are members of your union from any form of harassment by union officials.”
Trump’s curtailment of AFGE’s work-place presence, via executive order, and now Wilkie’s exploitation of the Cox scandal, for PR purposes, makes grassroots activism more difficult. At the local level, newer AFGE officials and some supportive national staffers favor mobilization of the membership, a more aggressive approach to legislative-political action, and stronger ties to central labor councils.
But they can’t succeed in campaigns against VA privatization and other threats without far more funding, training, and headquarters support. Instead, under Cox, too much dues money has been wasted on union junketeering. AFGE officials who should be leading workplace fights back home are encouraged, as a perk of office, to attend out-of-town meetings and conferences, where eating, drinking, and staying in nice hotels is the main order of business.
That’s why just reshuffling the deck at the top, in the wake of a major scandal, is not going to change the culture of either AFGE or the UAW. Ultimately, both organizations need strong internal reform movements and direct election of their top officers. Otherwise, their similar systems of leadership-dispensed patronage and top-down control will continue to breed organizational dysfunction, abuse of high union office, or serious financial corruption, in the case of the UAW.
AFGE and UAW reformers seeking solidarity and support should make a bee-line to the Labor Notes conference in Chicago, next April 17-19. There, 3,000 like-minded activists will be brainstorming about labor revitalization strategies, which have already proven successful in other unions long saddled with tainted leaders and ineffective bureaucracies.
Steve Early was an organizer and international union representative for the Communications Workers of America for 27 years. He is a longtime supporter of union reform movements and the author of four books on labor and politics. He can be reached at Lsupport@aol.com.