DETROIT — As hundreds of UAW members from across the nation gather here this week to set priorities for upcoming negotiations with the Detroit automakers, there's an undercurrent of fear that a dark episode of labor history could repeat itself.
It was 30 years ago this week that the federal government seized temporary operational control of the Teamsters union under a consent decree to settle racketeering and corruption charges brought by then-U.S. Attorney Rudy Giuliani.
The action placed the once-powerful union in receivership under the watch of federal officials. It wasn't until 2015, 26 years later, that the feds partly let go and agreed to end the consent decree. Even now, the union remains under some oversight as part of a five-year "transition period."
The specter of that historic intervention now hangs over the UAW, which is facing a federal corruption and conspiracy investigation of its own. Already, seven people — two formerly with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles and five affiliated with the UAW — have been charged and pleaded guilty in the case, which stemmed from the misuse of funds from a training center jointly operated by FCA and the union. More charges are expected as the probe continues.
The circumstances of the Teamsters and UAW cases differ widely. The Teamsters tumbled into federal receivership after a long and sordid history of ties to organized and even violent crime. The UAW investigation has turned up nothing of the sort, focusing mainly on allegations of bribery and other financial misdeeds.
But three well-placed union sources, including two in leadership positions, told Automotive News that there is concern within UAW headquarters that the government could push to prosecute the case under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, possibly leading to federal oversight.
While there's no sign that the government intends to do so, legal experts say it is a possibility if the investigation uncovers evidence that points to a widespread conspiracy. Although RICO is best-known to be used against organized crime, it can and has been used to prosecute widespread corruption in organizations or push for a settlement.
"It doesn't have to be organized crime in a literal sense," said attorney Edwin Stier, a former state and federal prosecutor. "It has to be a continuous pattern of racketeering as defined by the statute."
Specifically, violations of the Labor Management Relations Act, which has been the basis for the government's case against UAW and FCA officials, are considered among the predicate crimes used to establish a pattern of corruption under RICO.