Gary Jones' challenge leading the UAW

UAW President Gary Jones: "Specific individuals -- not institutions like the UAW -- are responsible for the betrayals of trust identified by the government." Photo credit: REUTERS/Rebecca Cook

Well, that didn't take long. New UAW President Gary Jones waited less than a day after assuming the helm of his troubled union to attack news organizations for doing their job.

Could there be a worse way for the new guy to get started?

Jones is charged with cleaning up the UAW's cesspool of corruption that the feds say dates back under the leadership of at least three of Jones' predecessors.

He must preside over a union that has seen its political clout deteriorate for several years. Next year, he will oversee negotiations between the Detroit 3 and a restless membership that wants to enjoy a bigger slice of Detroit 3 profits. Moreover, his union must figure out its place in an auto industry grappling with massive technological disruption.

So on Thursday, when asked about the UAW's expanding scandal that now includes public documentation that legally implicates the union itself along with individual UAW and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles officials as parties to the corruption, Jones quickly denied any institutional involvement in the crisis.

"We investigated, cooperated and took strong action from the moment we learned these issues from the government," Jones said. "Specific individuals -- not institutions like the UAW -- are responsible for the betrayals of trust identified by the government."

He then questioned the timing of a story in The Detroit News this week that first identified the public documents implicating the UAW and FCA in the conspiracy. (see attached documents at the end of this blog)

"Kind of makes you scratch your head why they put it out," he said.

Maybe Jones was frustrated fielding these questions the day after he was elected president. After all, the new president of any organization typically gets a honeymoon period to make changes and enjoy some goodwill time in the public spotlight. He clearly wants to tackle other issues that impact his members' lives.

But Jones inherits festering sores that aren't going away anytime soon.

All signs point to additional charges coming from the Justice Department, which initiated the investigation during the Obama administration. But now facing a Trump-run Justice Department, and looming midterm elections, it's not a good time to blame the media or question the timing of stories. The leadership of this union must develop armor-plated skin and focus on fixing problems. How to do this?

Jones would do himself a favor getting some media relations advice from his Canadian union compatriot, Jerry Dias at Unifor. Under Dias, Unifor has maintained excellent relations with the press for years because he's not afraid to answer questions. Dias makes tough decisions -- such as striking General Motors for a month -- and isn't afraid of a fight in the court of public opinion, even with other unions. Dias gives straight answers to difficult questions, and he doesn't whine about the timing of stories. His union has earned its reputation for transparency.

If Jones cares about the public image of the UAW going forward, he should be prepared to answer the many uncomfortable questions coming his way -- and not scratch his head about it.

You can reach Philip Nussel at pnussel@crain.com

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