DETROIT -- Members of the United Auto Workers union have overwhelmingly approved picking their leaders by direct ballot elections, rejecting a system that many blamed for a bribery and embezzlement scandal in the union's top ranks.
The “one member, one vote” measure got about 64% of 140,586 valid ballots that were received by Monday’s mail-in deadline.
Only about 36% favored the current system of leadership picked by delegates to a convention, according to results released Thursday.
The results are not official until approved by the Labor Department and a federal judge.
A court-appointed monitor will oversee the election of the union's 13-member International Executive Board that includes the president, vice president, secretary-treasurer and regional directors.
The monitor, Neil Barofsky, said Thursday in a statement that the election is likely to take place in the summer or fall of next year.
The change is a dramatic one for the 86-year-old union with 397,000 members nationwide. In the past, union leaders were chosen every four years at a convention, with the delegates picked by local union offices. But the new slate of leaders is picked by the outgoing president, and seldom has there been any serious opposition.
Direct elections received 89,615 votes, while 50,971 wanted delegate voting. Over 1 million active members and retirees were eligible to vote.
Barofsky was appointed by a federal judge earlier this year as part of a settlement that avoided a government takeover of the union after a wide-ranging bribery and embezzlement scandal. The vote on direct election of leaders also was part of the settlement.
Peggy Jones, a worker at General Motors’ truck assembly plant in Flint, Michigan, said she voted to keep the delegate system but understands that many workers are upset with and don’t trust union leaders because of the scandal.
Jones said she voted for the delegate system for fear that smaller industries and locals won’t be represented under the direct election system. She’s also afraid that some fringe members without experience could be elected.
“You don’t want someone in here that doesn’t have experience,” she said. “There’s still a whole lot of good people in the UAW. I have trust in the people who are left.”
But Eric Truss, who makes axles for Ford F-150 pickup trucks at the company’s Rouge complex in Dearborn, Michigan, said he voted for direct elections to hold leaders accountable.
“They know if they’re not listening to their members, they won’t be back in office next time around,” said Truss, a member of a union caucus formed to oppose leaders after news of the scandal broke.
Many members, he said, were upset because dues were misused by union leaders after they were raised at the last union convention.
Truss said he's not worried about the automotive sector of the union dominating other groups such as aerospace and higher education and says those groups weren’t being represented in the past by union leaders.
Direct elections, he said, will give groups outside of automotive a voice at the table.
The vote and monitor are part of a December 2020 deal between former UAW President Rory Gamble and ex-U.S. Attorney Matthew Schneider in Detroit that held off moves by the government to take over the union.
Schneider and many members viewed direct elections as a way to hold union leaders accountable for their actions.
But Gamble, who retired June 30, said at the time that direct elections would let anti-union groups put out disinformation. He added that the delegate system gives minorities, women and members outside of the automobile sector a voice in picking leaders.
Gamble, who was replaced by Ray Curry, was not charged in the federal probe. He has said the union is now clean and has safeguards in place to prevent the scandal from happening again.
Eleven union officials and a late official’s spouse have pleaded guilty in the corruption probe since 2017, including the two presidents who served before Gamble, Gary Jones and Dennis Williams. Both were sentenced to prison.
Not all of the convictions were linked. The first wave, which included some Fiat Chrysler employees, involved money paid as bribes from a Fiat Chrysler-UAW training center in Detroit. Jones and Williams were caught in an embezzlement scheme with the leaders taking thousands of dollars of union money to buy golf clubs, booze, lavish meals and to rent expensive villas in Palm Springs, California.
During the probe, Schneider, who led the investigation, said the corruption was so deep that the federal government may take over the union.
The U.S. attorney’s office said it uncovered embezzlement of over $1.5 million in dues money, kickbacks to union officials from vendors and $3.5 million in illegal payments from executives at Fiat Chrysler who wanted to corruptly influence contract talks.
Barofsky, who will stay in place for six years unless both sides agree to a shorter term, leads the law firm Jenner & Block’s monitorship practice.