When participants in a 2005 United Auto Workers bowling tournament took to the lanes, they did so equipped with specially printed towels supplied by a Toledo sporting goods dealer.
The international union in Detroit picked up the $6,400 tab.
At a time when the U.S. auto industry is in dire straits and thousands of UAW members are facing unemployment, critics have raised questions about union spending that they consider excessive or unnecessary.
UAW officials insist expenses were justified and the union has been fiscally responsible.
The debate was sparked by a recent UAW financial report filed with the U.S. Labor Department.
"The UAW has tightened its belt, and continues to look at areas where we can cut costs without reducing services to the members," said spokesman Paul Krell. Staffing has been reduced 20 percent through departures and retirements, and 16 unneeded offices have been closed, he noted.
Countered Gregg Shotwell, a union member near Grand Rapids, Mich., "This is a time for the union to be more frugal and set an example." Mr. Shotwell helped found the UAW dissident group Soldiers of Solidarity.
"But they appear to be spending as freely as ever."
Mr. Shotwell was unhappy with the selection of Las Vegas as the site for a just-concluded union convention.
"It was inappropriate," he said.
"And it doesn't look good to the unorganized workers we're trying to organize. We should have that conference in Detroit. There's room in Detroit."
Mr. Krell acknowledged that the union is looking to hold more national conferences in Detroit and at its lakeside camp near Onaway, Mich., rather than in tourist spots like Las Vegas.
But it is often most cost-effective to hold regional conferences closest to the union locals involved.
That was a prime reason for holding events last year in cities such as Palm Springs, Reno, Atlantic City, Cape May, N.J., and Cape Cod, Mass., the spokesman said.
The UAW last year spent $318,000 in member dues money on briefcases and pens given out at those gatherings, $5,150 to produce a retirement video for a UAW official, and tens of thousands on souvenirs such as embroidered polo shirts and luggage tags, the Detroit Free Press reported based on an analysis of the annual financial report the union filed.
But the UAW's Mr. Krell said the form, which for the first time in 2005 required unions to submit a detailed list of expenditures, creates an incorrect impression.
The costs of items like bowling towels and jackets usually are offset by fees paid by union-member participants in particular events, he said.
That was the case with a shooting tournament held last year for members in northwest Ohio, he said. The UAW paid $5,841 to Jaqua's Fine Guns, Findlay, for the event, the union filing shows.
Other local expenditures by the union's national leadership include $68,424 in banquet and other charges to the Radisson Hotel Toledo; $11,000 to J.D.'s Kiddie Rides Inc., Toledo, $12,628 for a union golf tournament at Hawthorne Hills Country Club, Lima; and $5,880 for Toledo Mud Hens baseball game tickets.
The Hens tickets were purchased for about 500 local officials in Toledo last year for an annual conference of a union department that represents employees at automotive parts suppliers.
An official at Dan Rodgers Sporting Goods Inc., Toledo, who handled the bowling towel sale was unavailable for comment yesterday afternoon, according to an employee who said he was unfamiliar with the transaction.
Membership of the national union slipped 15 percent last year to 557,000. But the UAW's $306 million budget was balanced, and it remained on good financial footing, with $1.2 billion in assets and just $3.9 million in debts.
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