At its secluded 1,000-acre compound in northern Lower Michigan, the UAW is building a lavish cottage for former President Dennis Williams.
But the Black Lake Conference Center near Onaway, subsidized by union strike fund interests, is not a source of revenue for the UAW. Black Lake has bled tens of millions of dollars over the years and, according to tax returns, owes the UAW more than $61 million.
Black Lake, where Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz spent their honeymoon, holds a kind of spiritual significance for many union members with its connection to iconic labor leader Walter Reuther, who wanted to create an educational retreat for workers there. -low.
Now, in the midst of a federal criminal investigation into the misuse of millions of dollars from the UAW-Chrysler National Training Center, the union’s practice of providing cabins to former presidents is coming under intense scrutiny and from reviews, mostly thanks to the amenities and optics of the 1,885-square-foot house designated for use by Williams, who retired last year.
Designs for Williams’ three-bedroom cottage — referred to as Cabin No. 4 at the UAW Walter and May Reuther Family Education Center, or as Williams Cottage on plans filed in Cheboygan County — include a hidden storage space in the master bedroom, quartz bathroom countertops, cherry and maple kitchen cabinets, chrome sinks and even a wine cooler.
“It’s so unique,” said Dick Danjin, a retired General Motors employee and UAW international representative. “In an eclipse in full sun, it would shine.”
Frank Hammer, a retired autoworker, former local union official and activist, said the construction of the new chalet marks a clear break between past and present practices.
“The fact that (former presidents) were able to use a cabin for their purposes when they traveled to Black Lake seemed entirely reasonable as an expression of gratitude for the president’s service to the union. I don’t think there was a soul in the UAW that had a problem with that. What was done here was not in the same category at all,” Hammer said.
The UAW’s position is that the new cabin will not belong to Williams.
“It is important to note that the new cabin is and always will be the property of the UAW and does not belong to Dennis Williams. It is a permanent asset of the UAW’s Black Lake Education Center,” according to a statement provided. by UAW spokesman Brian Rothenberg.
A story of chalets
When the UAW handed the reins of the union to new president Ron Gettelfinger in 2002, members honored the outgoing leader with more than their thanks.
Stephen Yokich had just been given a new title, President Emeritus, and soon he was expected to enjoy the benefit of retired life after leading the union since 1995.
Yokich, an executive who oversaw a major strike against General Motors and landed lucrative contracts for autoworkers, needed to build and furnish his own cottage in Black Lake.
“As a tribute to his tireless efforts to invest in and expand the educational and recreational opportunities available to UAW leaders at the great facility, the cabin shall be available for his use whenever he visits the center, for use others when he is not visiting the center and for viewing special memorabilia of his choosing,” according to the resolution included in a book of proceedings from the union’s convention in Las Vegas.
When the resolution passed, then-Vice President Cal Rapson announced the news:
“The cabin is yours, Steve.”
Yokich’s death from a stroke two months later derailed these plans, but other retired presidents were also granted the use of a cabin on the Black Lake grounds.
But Black Lake, whose resort and golf course are open to the public, has struggled as a destination.
The center, backed by strike fund interest funded by $760 million in UAW dues, reported a loss of $2.8 million for 2017, according to federal records.
And this trend of financial losses goes back many years.
The Free Press reported in 2008 that Black Lake lost $23 million over a five-year period.
Reuters reported in 2011 that the union provided $39 million in loans to Black Lake, and in 2017 documents for Black Lake filed with the Labor Department listed long-term debts of more than $61 million payable to the UAW, which now has about 431,000 members.
The Detroit News reported last year that the UAW had sought to save money by using non-union workers with union workers to build Williams Cottage, sparking an outpouring of anger. This revelation led the Wall Street Journal to opine in an opinion piece that “the union didn’t want to pay more for union work if it meant sacrificing the wine cooler.”
The UAW said it tries to find union workers first for any work on the property, but a remote location can make that difficult.
“The UAW always hires union members and contracts with union contractors when they are available. The UAW is using members of the United Steelworkers, who work full-time in Black Lake, as the general contractor and builders of the new cabin, as well as their labor on other projects in Black Lake,” according to the UAW.
The price is unclear
Rothenberg could not provide the exact cost of the new chalet, although The News noted that union offers of around $851,000 and $1.34 million were rejected as too high. In 2017, the cost of improvements at Black Lake, not including the $149,265 spent on the union’s neighboring golf course, was $1.8 million, according to federal tax returns, which may not take into account of all the improvements made to the site during the year. Additional line items for the entity operating the center also list improvement expenses. Figures for 2018 are expected to be released in March.
The decision to build the new chalet for Williams isn’t the only issue that stands out, however.
Planning for the chalet was underway before a resolution about it was passed at last year’s UAW convention in June. Plans filed in Cheboygan County show a date of September 2017.
In convention parlance, the resolution touts Williams’ many years of service.
“Dennis inspired us all with his vision and leadership and enriched us with his genuine nature and friendship. Throughout his illustrious career, the interests and well-being of our members have always come first,” according to the resolution, which authorizes “the provision of a cabin … at Black Lake for his use — without personal expense — whenever he stays at the facility.”
Williams could not be reached for comment.
Despite the controversy surrounding the Williams cottage, experts say it’s understandable to allow retired union leaders to stay at Black Lake, given that their pay is likely to be several times lower than that of the corporate executives to whom they face during their career.
Art Wheaton, director of Western New York labor and environmental programs for the Worker Institute at Cornell University, said it’s no surprise that the UAW wants to have a place where Retired leaders could go after their term ends. On the one hand, these old leaders can pass on what they know to a new generation, he noted.
“I think that’s a relatively reasonable benefit for a lifetime of union service,” said Wheaton, who in years past has been brought to Black Lake to teach the auto industry.
Wheaton remembers seeing retired UAW President Doug Fraser in Black Lake before his death in 2008.
A union ideal
Black Lake is considered a “living tribute to the lives of Walter and May Reuther”, who were killed in a plane crash en route to the center in 1970.
“Reuther wanted a school for future union leaders where members could come for two-week sessions and bring their families with them for educational programs and recreation,” according to a 1972 AIA Journal article by Walter P. Reuther Library of Labor and Urban Affairs at Wayne State University.
Exact numbers weren’t available, but it’s estimated that tens of thousands of union workers have visited the center over the decades.
Following:UAW scandal sends ex-No. 2 in the Fiat Chrysler department in prison
Following:New UAW boss was on board $1,600 bus ride cited in scandal
Major figures from the union’s past also played a role in the formation of Black Lake. A bar there is known as Mazey’s, named after Emil Mazey, a prominent labor activist who served as secretary-treasurer of the UAW. According to the story, Mazey was able to get a bar in the field because he won a game of poker against Reuther, who was a teetotaler.
Black Lake, however, has struggled as a destination.
Wheaton, of Cornell, said the remoteness – the resort is more than a four-hour drive north of Detroit – is part of Black Lake’s appeal but also its big hurdle as an attraction, especially for the golf course. The Free Press noted that the course, which opened in 2000 and is featured by the UAW as one of Golf Digest’s Top 100 courses, cost $6 million.
Union officials have considered selling the property in the past, but Wheaton said it’s not clear the union could come close to recouping what was spent there or what the center and golf course are worth. . The UAW assigns a value of $31 million to the education center and $5.4 million to the golf course after an amortization list of $2.3 million.
“It’s just not designed to be a high-traffic, high-volume golf course, and they haven’t been able to attract people,” Wheaton said. “If you want to get away from it all and no one finds you, this is where you go.”
Contact Eric D. Lawrence: [email protected] Follow him on Twitter: @_ericdlawrence