DETROIT (Reuters) - If the UAW has a sacred space, this rustic retreat and golf course known as Black Lake is as close as it gets. But Black Lake has also emerged as a sign of the union's overreach and looming financial woes.
For four decades, the UAW has maintained a sprawling property in northern Michigan as a shrine to the ambitions of the union's founder, Walter Reuther.
Reuther's ashes were scattered here after his death in 1970. He is the focal point of a painting of civil rights leaders in the lobby of the education center. There is a "zodiac room" where metal and glass sculptures ring the walls, depicting the position of the planets at the time the labor leader was born in West Virginia.
Despite a three-decade decline in membership, the UAW kept up and expanded the site. It opened an 18-hole golf course during the SUV boom in 2000.
Over the past decade, the UAW has also been forced to provide about $39 million in loans to the Walter and May Reuther Family Education Center and Black Lake Golf Course, known collectively as Black Lake, to keep them open.
The bulk of those loans were extended from 2007 to 2010, when the union made steep concessions in wages and benefits to the U.S. automakers, records filed with the U.S. Labor Department show.
The loans are listed on the UAW's books as assets. In a statement, the UAW said the funding for Black Lake is only considered to be a loan in accounting terms for the purpose of its filings.
"I don't even know why we call them loans," UAW Secretary-Treasurer Dennis Williams said in an interview in July. "I mean, it isn't like they pay them back."
The union says Black Lake was never intended to make money and its spending on the complex represents an investment in education for its members.
Still, the UAW hopes to boost revenue by marketing Black Lake as a tourist destination and meeting spot for schools and other unions.
But the clock is ticking. Black Lake is one of the biggest drains on a UAW balance sheet already weakened by tumbling property values and a shift of auto production jobs abroad.
Putting tip from 'solidarity'
The UAW bought Black Lake in 1967, a generation after Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz spent their honeymoon there.
The union hosts classes and labor retreats there. Workers and their families can attend a week-long seminar with free room and board each summer.
In 2000, former UAW president Stephen Yokich opened the golf course. At the time, the union's membership was less than half its 1979 peak of about 1.5 million members. The union's bimonthly magazine, Solidarity, began to publish putting tips for members.
Black Lake took about $25 million in loans from 2007 to 2010, the UAW's government filings show.
The union says it has made "many attempts" to sell the golf course without success. In early 2010, then-UAW president Ron Gettelfinger revealed that the UAW had been exploring a sale of Black Lake for several years. The plan was shelved when Bob King became president six months later.
"It hasn't performed as well as it should because, quite frankly, I think we never looked at it from the revenue side," Williams said of Black Lake.