Former United Auto Workers president Gary Jones, a top ally to Democrats at both the state and national levels, pleaded guilty to embezzlement on Wednesday.
Jones admitted to using more than $1 million in union funds on various extravagances, including clothing, golf outings and equipment, vacation rentals, liquor, fine dining, and premium cigars. The union—which is still under investigation after a federal probe began more than five years ago—endorsed presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden in April and has spent big backing Democrats in recent years.
In the 2018 cycle alone, the UAW's political action committee gave $200,000 to the Michigan Democratic Party and $68,000 to Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer's (D.) campaign. Disgraced former UAW vice president Norwood Jewell, who admitted to receiving illegal benefits from Fiat Chrysler executives, served as a party superdelegate in 2016 and remained listed as a party leader following his guilty plea. The union has also continued to support Whitmer through her controversial handling of the coronavirus pandemic, calling her a "leading voice" who has been at all times "inclusive and focused on building a consensus to do what is right for the health and safety of UAW members" in a May statement.
The union also gave $10,000 to Sen. Gary Peters (D., Mich.) prior to his election in 2014 and has since contributed $1,000,000 to Senate Majority PAC in the 2020 cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Aligned with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.), the PAC launched an ad in March attacking Republican Senate hopeful John James, who has outraised the embattled Michigan Democrat for three consecutive quarters. UAW also gave $105,000 to Michigan Senate Victory 2020, a joint fundraising committee that supports both Peters and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
The PAC, Biden, Whitmer, and Peters did not respond to requests for comment.
Despite the ongoing investigation, both Peters and Biden praised the union as GM employees went on strike in September 2019. Nine UAW officials had already admitted to wrongdoing at the time, and former Region 5 director Vance Pearson attended negotiations with the auto giant just days before he was scheduled to attend a federal court hearing in Missouri. Pearson went on to plead guilty to embezzlement in February.
Michigan Republican Party chairwoman Laura Cox celebrated Jones's plea, accusing Democrats of turning a blind eye to the union's corruption for years.
"For too long, UAW bosses took advantage of our nation's hard-working auto workers. Given political cover by some of the nation's most powerful Democrats, their corruption went unchecked," Cox told the Free Beacon. "I applaud efforts by the federal government to end this dark chapter in labor history, and finally bring those responsible to justice. Hopefully, today marks a new era for American workers and greater Federal oversight of how unions conduct their business."
In total, the union has spent more than $11.6 million on direct contributions to Democrats since 2008, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Labor watchdogs said that the political contributions have purchased the union extensive influence in the Democratic Party. Mark Mix, executive president of the National Right to Work Committee, called the guilty plea and the larger scandal "shameful but hardly surprising." He pointed to the Biden endorsement as well as the former vice president's embrace of mandatory dues payments as evidence of their shared interests.
"If Biden and the UAW elite get their way, American private sector workers' freedom to withhold money from corrupt union brass will be completely extinguished," Mix said in a statement. "Union bosses will shower his campaign with union money, including forced dues, in exchange for these promises of expanded coercive privileges."
Following Jones's plea, UAW president Rory Gamble released a statement pledging to "continue to focus on implementing the necessary reforms to protect our members."