2020 Dems Rally Around Union Amid Corruption Probe

Candidates have received more than $100,000 from United Auto Workers

Democratic presidential hopefuls Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, and Elizabeth Warren / Getty Images
September 19, 2019

Top Democratic presidential candidates took more than $100,000 from United Auto Workers and rushed to show solidarity with striking GM employees despite an ongoing federal probe into allegations of corruption at the union.

Former vice president Joe Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D., Mass.), and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.) have received more than $100,000 in political donations from the union over the course of their careers, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Democrats are vying for organized labor's support in a crowded primary, but their shows of solidarity with striking auto workers come amid a federal corruption probe that has already led to nine guilty pleas.

An affidavit filed in federal court accuses UAW officials of extensive corruption and mass misuse of union funds. Union members allegedly spent $400,000 to rent and clean private villas, $120,000 on golf outings, and $50,000 on two parties for the union's governing body. Those gatherings included "ultra-premium" liquor and cigars, a person to roll cigars, and provocatively dressed women to light the cigars for UAW officials, according to the probe.

Nine UAW employees have already admitted to wrongdoing. Four conspirators admitted to receiving more than $150,000 in illegal kickbacks spent on luggage, electronics, clothing, and golf equipment, among other luxuries. One of the nine, former UAW vice president Norwood Jewell, also served as a DNC superdelegate. He stepped down following a Washington Free Beacon report.

The UAW, which did not respond to request for comment, has repeatedly denied systemic corruption and emphasized its cooperation with federal investigators in the past. The union has spent more than $1.5 million in union money on legal fees stemming from the probe.

The corruption investigation has begun to ensnare top union officials. UAW Region 5 director Vance Pearson attended bargaining negotiations with GM Sunday, just days before he was scheduled to attend a federal court hearing in Missouri. Pearson has been charged with orchestrating a conspiracy to steal more than $1 million in union dues. On Thursday, UAW president Gary Jones was revealed as one of multiple unnamed union officials in the criminal case, just days before the launch of the UAW strike.

Thousands of GM workers launched a strike at midnight on Monday. Top Democratic presidential candidates, including Biden, Warren, and Sanders, raced to show their support.

The Center for Union Facts, a labor watchdog, questioned the timing of the strike given the circumstances.

"The timing of the United Auto Workers' strike against General Motors could not be more convenient. It came right after Gary Jones was implicated in the ongoing investigation into corruption in the union's ranks—not to mention it almost immediately followed an attempt to oust Jones as president," a spokesman said in a statement. "It appears the UAW will do anything to divert attention away from its own scandals, even if it means putting workers in jeopardy."

Though a number of retired UAW workers have staged protests in response to the corruption probe, top Democratic presidential candidates have been quick to back the union after accepting tens of thousands in UAW campaign contributions.

"I stand with the 49,000 UAW GM workers who just went on strike. Together we are going to end outrageous corporate greed," Bernie Sanders said Monday. Sanders has taken nearly $80,000 in UAW money dating back to 1990.

Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren made similar statements in support of striking workers. They have received at least $10,000 and $13,750 from the union, respectively. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D., Minn.) has received $21,000 in UAW contributions since 2006 and tweeted out her support, as did South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Kamala Harris (D., Calif.), and Sen. Cory Booker (D., N.J.). Buttigieg received $10,000 from a pair of UAW chapters in 2010, according to Indiana election records, while Harris received $5,000 in 2016. Booker is the only candidate who has not received UAW contributions in the past.

None of the candidates returned requests for comment.

The Democratic presidential candidates' support of the UAW aims to secure the substantial financial and political resources possessed by union leaders. The UAW spent more than $11 million to help elect Democrats between 2008 and 2018, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Though the UAW and many other top unions have yet to get involved in the Democratic presidential primary, the eventual nominee will undoubtedly rely on organized labor for support. An analysis found that unions sent more than $1.6 billion to left-wing political advocacy groups between 2010 and 2018.