DETROIT - UAW President Stephen Yokich is in an internecine fight over who will name the next director for the union's most powerful region.
Yokich broke with precedent by taking a major role in supporting his choice for the director's job.
The contest between his candidate and the one endorsed by retiring UAW Region 1 Director Bob Lent has been marked by allegations of threats and intimidation and has caused divisions within the UAW, two local presidents said.
A February meeting aimed at resolving the issue instead erupted in cursing, threats and 'goon squad' intimidation, according to union officials in attendance.
'We witnessed the strong-arm tactics of the underworld instead of the democratic principles of the UAW,' stated a letter to Yokich signed by 19 officers of locals within Region 1, which is based in Madison Heights, Mich. 'Brother Yokich, step back. This race should not be about your ability to dictate outcomes.'
A spokesman at the UAW's Solidarity House headquarters in Detroit said the union does not comment on political matters. More than half the union's 800,000 members work for automotive suppliers and other employers besides the Big 3.
The deepening dispute over Region 1 comes not long before the UAW's triennial convention next month in Las Vegas. Delegates will vote on new terms of office for all executives of the union and are expected to approve Yokich for his second term as president.
At issue is the power of the UAW's president to control the many regions and locals, say union officials.
The dispute has embroiled the union and its largest, most powerful region, with 94,000 UAW members employed at Big 3 plants, Bundy Group and others.
The regional director's voting power is apportioned by the size of the jurisdiction. The larger the region, the greater the voting power at conventions and within the UAW's 18-member executive board.
Problems began late last year, when Lent announced his retirement after 15 years with the executive board and Region 1. He is considered to have wide support within his region, which encompasses 58 locals in four Michigan counties.
His obvious successor would be Leon Matthews, who has served 10 years as assistant director. Before that, Matthews was president and held other positions at UAW Local 653 in Pontiac, Mich., the largest General Motors local, when the membership exceeded 17,000.
Lent's endorsement of Matthews was standard procedure in UAW regions. Indeed, Yokich, a Region 1 director during the 1980s, was succeeded by his own assistant director, Perry Johnson.
It is standard procedure no more, said UAW Local 51 President Sam Nardicchio. 'The regions have allowed their directors to anoint their successors, and the international has honored that - until Steve Yokich.'
The Yokich candidate is Nate Gooden, whose highest elected union job has been one term as president of Local 140. Gooden, Matthews and Lent did not return telephone calls for this story.
In a bid to resolve the issue, both sides agreed to a Feb. 4 meeting intended to give Region 1's members a chance to hear both candidates. Each candidate seeks a majority of delegates for the regional meeting during the Las Vegas convention.
But before the membership began filing in, a dispute broke out. Yokich engaged in cursing and ranting and 'personal insults toward Director Bob Lent,' the letter to Yokich stated.
Yokich and Gooden left early, denying Region 1 caucus members a chance to hear both candidates, said Daniel McCarthy, president of Local 417. They knew Gooden could not carry the majority, he said.
'You (Yokich) left before hearing member after member take the microphone to protest ... the brazen threats and intimidations you have unleashed on Region 1 through your lieutenants,' the letter stated.
Four presidents of Region 1 locals were warned in January by representatives of the international about opposing Gooden, Nardicchio said. The locals were told they would receive no support on bargaining and other issues if they did not support Yokich, he said. He declined to identify the presidents.
McCarthy said Matthews is widely endorsed but did not rule out Gooden's chances. Yokich 'has a position of power and influence in this organization. You would not casually dismiss the influence of the international's president,' he said.
Both McCarthy and Nardicchio contend they have been pressured to support Gooden. 'No direct threats have been made to my position, but I have been reminded that it is Steve who makes appointments to those who aspire to higher position,' McCarthy said.
The fight over Lent's successor has divided Region 1's UAW members. 'You have officer against officer, bargaining committees against their officers, you have locals now opposing one another, all for very, very little apparent good reason,' McCarthy said.
'Steve had no opposition (for re-election) in Region 1,' he said. 'It makes you wonder why he is going looking for it.'