Tuesday Apr 07

Back Story: UAW and the NRA are Corruption Contrasts

The United Automobile Workers (UAW) has a storied history in the labor movement of the United States from the days of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and the surge of industrial unionization in the 1930s straight through to their recent successful six-week strike with General Motors. At the same time as UAW members celebrate the fruits of their struggle for a new and improved contract, they are also facing a scandal of historic proportions as well that has led to the conviction of top officials and the resignation of their President and other top officers. The charges were severe. Taking money and inducements from some automakers to give them more favorable deals than other automakers were receiving. This is a tragedy.

Technically, the National Rifle Association (NRA) now has more members than the UAW, numbering them in the millions rather than in the hundreds of thousands. The NRA is not a labor union of course, but a nonprofit under a different set of rules and requirements, and is primarily known now not for its gun safety courses, but for its fierce, partisan lobbying at all levels to ensure that its members and just about anyone else citizen or criminal, sane or unstable, protector or abuser is able to own, carry, and fire a lethal weapon. The NRA has been very, very good at that.

Over the last year, the NRA has been constantly in the news for scandals that make the small-time bribes and inducements within the UAW look bush league. Millions in clothes and trips for Wayne LaPierre and his family along with a mult-imillion-dollar home in Dallas, security, and more have flowed to him as CEO of this tax-exempt nonprofit along with his friends and allies. Much of this was embedded in the relationship with a prime contractor of the NRA providing media and public relations services for decades, and greasing their contracts with open credit cards for LaPierre to keep the deal sweet and long lasting, until they fell out. There has been internal conflict, but the resignations have been not by those accused of such self-dealing, but largely from those trying to get a full accounting and some accountability. The situation in the NRA is treated less as a tragedy, than par for the course. These are two huge nonprofits but in one case it’s called bribery, and officials will go to jail and be barred from the union. In the other case, the board is able to backdate the checks and the board minutes to paper over the bribes to make them look legal and to do so with impunity.

Neither organization is all that democratic. The UAW doesn’t have direct elections of its top officers, and the NRA runs something closer to a popularity contest, but the level of governance accountability in the UAW, which truly must answer to its members, compared to the NRA, where the members are essentially irrelevant and falling, is the difference between night and day. In the UAW past and current officers are forced to be accountable, make repayments, and step down. In the NRA, Wayne LaPierre is having chats on the phone with President Trump to prevent regulation of military-grade weapons and greater scrutiny on gun sales in the aftermath of mass killings, even while there are front page reports of his scandalous behavior on the front pages of the nation’s largest newspapers.

The difference is not simply that unions are actually policed under Taft-Hartley and Landrum-Griffith laws, while the nonprofit laws are now barely enforced by the Internal Revenue Service or anyone else, but the law is important. Union leaders are barred from taking anything of value from an employer or contractors. Nonprofit leaders, like LaPierre, seemingly can take everything of value from contractors.

The real difference is that in one case membership still matters, while in the other membership is simply a number without a real voice. In the UAW, the board actually has some power, while in the NRA the board is window-dressing and hype whether Charlton Heston or Oliver North.

The other difference is in politics and power. As long as the NRA is making big-time contributions to politicians, particularly Republicans it seems, they can weather a scandal. There is no call for stiffening the rules for nonprofits. There are investigations of the NRA tax exemption in New York and Washington, D.C., but nothing they can’t handle. The UAW makes contributions as well, but its from their members, rather than from megadonors and supplicants, so its easier for politicians to ignore, because it’s the dollars of thousands from weekly paychecks, rather than maximum contributions from a rich person’s checkbook.

Nonetheless, both should be case studies in nonprofit governance and accountability listing the do’s and don’ts. There are lessons to learn from both of these organizations and all are painful, but necessary, and for anyone keeping score, the UAW is going a world-class better job of cleaning up its mess, than the NRA which seems to neither bother, nor care.

Wade Rathke is the Chief Organizer of ACORN International, Founder and Chief Organizer of ACORN (1970-2008), and Founder and Chief Organizer of Local 100, United Labor Unions (ULU).

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