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May 7, 2021

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UAW President Rory Gamble mulls exit as union brass eyes promotions

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The United Auto Workers could install its fourth leader in three years because President Rory Gamble is considering retiring a year early in June, according to two sources familiar with the plan.

UAW leaders are mulling a tentative plan that envisions Gamble, 65, possibly retiring one year before the end of his four-year term and being succeeded by Secretary/Treasurer Ray Curry, 55, as the union’s second Black president, the sources said. The move would make Curry the incumbent leading into the 2022 union election and position him as a possible long-term head of a union that has seen 11 members convicted of federal crimes in recent years.

The situation is fluid. The potential leadership moves would come as the union begins to emerge from the most legally fraught period in its 86-year history. It’s been the target of a federal corruption investigation that convicted two vice presidents, two presidents and delivered the union to federal oversight.

Gamble declined to comment through a UAW spokesman, Brian Rothenberg. But in an interview this week with CNBC, Gamble said: “I’m looking at my options right now. But my biggest concern is not personal, it’s more about the organization and what’s best for the organization. I’ll probably be making the decision very shortly on what the future’s going to look like.”

The timing would come before members would use a historic referendum — required by terms of a settlement with the Justice Department that ended a prolonged criminal investigation — to decide whether to amend the UAW constitution to enable the direct election of top union officers. Such a move would represent a radical departure from the decades-long practice of allowing those same leaders effectively to be chosen and promoted by a small group of labor leaders.

Elevating Curry, a member of the union’s governing International Executive Board, to the presidency would ensure an incumbent with ties to the UAW’s existing leadership would hold the union’s top job instead of leaving it vacant for what’s likely to be the union’s first one-person, one-vote election in its history.

Additionally, the move would realize a long-term goal of Gamble: to end a string of one-term presidents leading the UAW. The ascension of Curry to the union’s top job theoretically could deliver a presidency lasting roughly nine years — a tenure likely to span the fraught transition to electrification and the challenges that could pose for UAW membership.

Under union tradition, members are barred from running for executive board and staff positions at the next national convention if they have already turned 65 — including president. Accordingly, Gamble could not stand for reelection next year. Curry, however, could run for a full term in 2022 and reelection in 2026.

If the membership of the UAW chooses the “one member, one vote” principle through the referendum, according to the consent decree between the union and the government, the UAW Constitution shall be amended to incorporate that principle with respect to its IEB elections prior to the next IEB elections taking place at or following the next UAW Constitutional Convention in June 2022.

The secretary/treasurer position is the second-highest-ranking job in a union with more than $1.1 billion in assets and approximately 1 million active and retired workers. The candidates vying to become the next secretary/treasurer are UAW Vice President Cindy Estrada, 52, who oversees the union’s Stellantis NV department, and Chuck Browning, 56, who leads a union region that includes Detroit and most of Wayne County, according to the sources.

The succession plan reflects the personnel challenges in moving beyond the most damaging period in the union’s long history. The News reported in late 2017 that federal agents were interested in Estrada while investigating whether worker training funds were misappropriated and if labor leaders received money or benefits through their tax-exempt nonprofits.

She has not been charged with wrongdoing. Estrada’s attorney, Daniel Collins, wrote in an email to The News on Tuesday that “Cindy is not a target of the investigation. She has conducted herself with honesty and integrity in her years serving the members of the UAW.”

Federal prosecutors in Detroit have, in rare instances, issued “no target” letters to people, but it was unclear if one was given to Estrada. Collins did not respond when asked if Estrada had received written assurances and federal prosecutors declined comment.

Browning, meanwhile, served as executive administrative assistant to President Dennis Williams, who is awaiting a likely prison sentence for conspiring to embezzle union funds. Respected inside the union and among auto executives, Browning has not been linked to the UAW scandal.

“The message this sends is that the old guard is still in control,” said Erik Gordon, a professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross Business School. “I think members are going to be discouraged, but I also think they are going to be scared by this.”

The tenure of a Curry-led UAW could be shaped by government oversight. Federal prosecutors have asked U.S. District Judge David Lawson to appoint New York attorney Neil Barofsky as the monitor overseeing UAW reforms for up to six years.

Within six months of selecting the monitor, the UAW must hold a referendum vote on amending the union constitution to allow for the direct election of the UAW’s executive board. The referendum is part of a broader oversight plan negotiated between Gamble and former U.S. Attorney Matthew Schneider, who resigned in February.

“The monitor will be in place, and I have faith in the monitor to be able to properly oversee the union,” Schneider told The News on Tuesday.

The plan also includes appointing an adjudications officer empowered to discipline and expel UAW officers for committing crimes, violating ethics rules or the union’s constitution. Federal investigators have amassed evidence of UAW officials engaged in conduct that did not lead to criminal charges and that evidence could be used to expel current union leaders once the monitor and adjudications officer are appointed, according to sources familiar with the investigation.

In all, the ongoing crackdown on auto industry corruption has led to the convictions of 15 people, including former UAW presidents Gary Jones and Williams. The investigation has revealed labor leaders and auto executives broke federal labor laws, stole union funds and received bribes and illegal benefits from union contractors and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV executives.

During his short tenure, Gamble has helped negotiate a deal to resolve a criminal investigation of the UAW that gives the federal government prolonged oversight and broad control over the union. The oversight is expected to cost millions of dollars.

Gamble also announced reorganizations that included disbanding a 17-state region based in Missouri that employed leaders involved in financial wrongdoing. And he announced financial reforms that include appointing an independent ethics officer, strengthening internal financial controls and ordering the sale of a $1.3 million lakefront retirement home for Williams.

“We have to be very precise and have zero tolerance going forward in how we manage our union,” Gamble told The News in an interview in November 2019. “Which means we’ve got to be honest with ourselves and recognize that there was a problem, that there’s a need for great change, and we have to show that we can self-govern.

“We don’t have time to procrastinate on big things, on what needs to be corrected in our union. We’ve got to move fast.”

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