Detroit — Gary Jones, a regional director from Missouri steeped in the finances of the United Auto Workers, will be the new president of the union when he and newly elected officers are installed Thursday.
Jones, director of Region 5 in the west and southwest United States, succeeds Dennis Williams, who will retire Thursday following a single term as president. Under Williams, the union posted slow but steady gains in membership, rising profit-sharing payouts from prosperous automakers, and what Williams has called "fiscally balanced ... finances three years in a row."
The leadership change comes as the union seeks to rebound from a devastating defeat in organizing Nissan workers in Canton, Mississippi, a failed organizing attempt of line workers at Volkswagen AG’s Chattanooga plant, and a continuing federal probe into the use of joint UAW-Big Three training funds financed by Detroit’s automakers.
"Dennis Williams navigated some turbulent waters and has left the union in good shape," said Harley Shaiken, a professor at the University of California-Berkeley who specializes in labor and the global economy. "I think Gary Jones will face some tough challenges and has the passion and the skill to take them on. The challenges U.S. labor in general and the UAW in particular face are formidable."
During his four-year term, Wiliams pushed the union to tighten its budget and balance its books. Jones, a certified public accountant, has held multiple accounting roles within the union, starting in 1990 when former President Owen Bieber assigned Jones to the UAW's accounting department.
In 1991, he was named chief accountant. He was appointed top administrative assistant to the UAW's secretary-treasurer in 1995, and served in that role until 2004, when he was appointed assistant director of Region 5.
Jones has been director of Region 5 since June 2014. Region 5 serves UAW members and retirees in 17 states in the western and southwestern United States, including Missouri, California and Washington state.
A UAW Local 1895 member, Jones was hired at Ford Motor Co.’s Glass plant in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, in 1975. He became a member of UAW Local 249 when he transferred to the Kansas City Ford Assembly Plant after the glass plant closed.
Jones and his wife, Cindy, live in O’Fallon, Missouri, and have two daughters and three granddaughters. He's a graduate of the University of Tulsa.
In a farewell address Wednesday, Williams didn't address the widening federal corruption investigation into the joint-training centers, focusing instead on negotiations and other accomplishments during his tenure.
"It's been an experience of my lifetime," he said. Membership increased 6.8 percent, according to a UAW report filed with the U.S. Department of Labor in March. The union gained nearly 15,000 members last year to bring the total to 430,871. And profit-sharing payouts at Detroit's Big Three hovered near record levels, powered by fat profits generated by increasing sales of trucks and SUVs.
The union elections, traditionally held a little more than a year before national contract talks with the Detroit automakers, come as federal prosecutors labeled the UAW and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles co-conspirators in a widening corruption scandal, an allegation at odds with claims the labor union and automaker were victimized by rogue employees.
The allegation, contained in a federal court plea agreement obtained by The Detroit News on Tuesday, potentially exposes the automaker and the UAW — a cornerstone of the modern American automotive industry — to criminal charges, fines and governmental oversight, according to a former federal prosecutor.
Federal prosecutors say the union and Fiat Chrysler conspired from before 2009 through 2015 to violate the Labor Management Relations Act, and that the automaker enabled nepotism to flourish at a blue-collar training center. The law prohibits employers or those working for them from paying, lending or delivering money or other valuables to officers or employees of labor organizations — and from labor leaders from accepting such items.
The conspiracy described by prosecutors spanned three administrations at the UAW: presidents Ron Gettelfinger, Bob King and Williams. And the investigation is continuing into the tenure of Jones.
The allegation emerged almost one year into a prosecution that has led to six convictions, including former Fiat Chrysler Vice President Alphons Iacobelli. The case has revealed a cozy relationship between the automaker and the union, long-time adversaries who prosecutors allege forged a relationship designed to corrupt the bargaining process and implementation of a labor contract for thousands of workers.
Williams and Fiat Chrysler officials have called the scandal the result of a few individuals. And the top leaders of both organizations — Williams and FCA CEO Sergio Marchionne — have attempted to distance both organizations from the scandal.
Delegates voted for "Team Jones" Wednesday. After accepting the nomination, Jones said he'd be running on a "slate" with vice presidential nominees Rory Gamble, Cindy Estrada and Terry Dittes and Ray Curry, the nominee for secretary-treasurer.
Estrada and Dittes were vice presidents for General Motors Co. and Fiat Chrysler, respectively, under Williams. They are expected to retain those titles when they are installed Thursday. Gamble will replace Vice President Jimmy Settles, retiring Thursday, as head of the UAW-Ford Department.
The three officers will oversee collective bargaining with Detroit's Big Three next year.
Curry was director for UAW Region 8, which covers Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and Florida, the District of Columbia, Maryland, Delaware and four Pennsylvania counties: Franklin, Cumberland, Adams, York.
Gamble was director of UAW Region 1A in Michigan, which covers most of Wayne County, Monroe County and Washtenaw County, and extends to the Ohio border.
Jones and those he ran with received thunderous applause every time a delegate from each local present cast votes for "Team Jones." Jason Starr, president of Local 249 in Kansas City, Missouri, nominated Jones. In a roughly five-minute nomination speech, Starr said Jones has "relentless courage" and "impeccable character."
"He is a proven leader," Starr said. "He is of sound judgment (and) tested ability. His love of humanity has prepared this brother to be the 12th UAW president."