DETROIT — A welder who rose from the factory floor to become president of a venerable U.S. labor union was sentenced Tuesday to 21 months in prison for luxurious winter stays in the California sun covered by dues paid by his blue-collar members.
Dennis Williams, who led the United Auto Workers from 2014 to 2018, is one of two presidents convicted of corruption in an investigation that revealed payoffs and embezzlements in the top tier of the Detroit-based union.
The probe has roiled the UAW and exposed the clubby ties among union brass. The union has agreed to have an independent monitor watch its finances, and members might get an opportunity to elect future presidents rather than leave the job to delegates at a convention.
Williams, 68, pleaded guilty to an embezzlement scheme that turned union dues into a pot of cash for golf, lodging and fancy meals.
U.S. District Judge Paul Borman told Williams that he was at the “pinnacle” of his career in leading 400,000 members, especially auto workers at General Motors, Ford Motor and the U.S. arm of Stellantis.
Williams acknowledged that he had “undermined my life’s work” with his crime, but he also placed blame on his successor, Gary Jones, who is awaiting his sentence.
The UAW’s Region 5 leadership, based in St. Louis, typically held winter meetings in Palm Springs, California. Williams turned the three-day event into a personal retreat during his tenure, even staying as long as four months in 2017, according to the government.
While railing against excesses in corporate America, Williams was ordering fine meals, sipping champagne and lighting big cigars in vacation villas, all while scheming to cover it up, prosecutors said.
“Williams has cast a stain on the UAW,” the government said in a court filing. “He undermined the trust that the UAW had built up — with its members, with union workers, and even with the general public.”
Williams’ lawyers said he has repaid $132,000 to the UAW. They asked for a sentence of a year and a day, the minimum term to qualify for good behavior credits and a shorter prison stay.
Eleven union officials and a late official’s spouse have pleaded guilty since 2017, although not all the crimes were connected. The first wave of convictions, which included some Fiat Chrysler employees, involved taking money from a Fiat Chrysler-UAW training center in Detroit.