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Rumblings in the depths of the UAW

Richard Mellor | 26.10.2007 17:59 | Analysis | Globalisation | Workers' Movements | Oxford

They still prevail but the contract rejections at Chrysler shook the UAW bureaucracy and the employers and are a glimpse of what is to come. And many of the new hires will likely be in the forefront of it.

Richard Mellor
AFSCME Local 444 retired
Oakland CA

As I write this, it appears that the UAW leadership has been able to muster, cajole, threaten and force it’s membership to accept a historic concessionary contract that is yet another nail in the autoworkers coffin. But it has been harder this time. The UAW bureaucracy, along with the entire leadership of organized labor are so accustomed to having their way, have such a tight control of the apparatus through a huge layer of staffers and appointed representatives, that this episode shook them deeply.

The awakening of the Chrysler workers has also shaken the auto bosses. By some accounts, local meetings were filled with angry workers expressing their disgust at the betrayal of them and future generations. After years of collaboration with the bosses, the UAW leadership has become a little overconfident. Not just in auto, but also throughout the U.S., unionized workers are reaching their “tipping point”. Whether the Chrsyler contract passes or not, the mini revolt among the troops is but a glimpse of what is to come. This is not the first or last battle workers will be faced with.

With the new contract at GM, total hourly labor costs will go from $78.21 to $25.66. Wages have been cut in half for many workers and new hires will come in as low as $14.00 per hour with less benefits. This is lower than the average non-union wage for goods producing industries which is $19.62 per hour.
The anger at having to pay Union dues that pays for the obscene salaries of their leaders in order to earn less than non-union will increase the anger and hatred the rank and file have toward the bureaucracy

The GM and Chrysler deals follow major concessions at Delphi Corporation, the parts supplier that was part of GM until a few years ago. The UAW leadership has sacrificed thousands of jobs, present and future and agreed at GM to take over the company’s long-term disability and retiree health care coverage through a trust termed VEBA, (Voluntary Employee Beneficiary Association).

The UAW will now be in the position of cutting the retirement benefits of its own members. This is a logical step for the UAW leadership who, along with the entire leadership of organized labor, see the Unions as a business with them as the CEO’s; they are “labor brokers” and branching out in to the health care industry is seen as a profitable move.

If the AFL-CIO were a healthy organization there would be heated opposition, debates and discussion at all levels, especially the Central Labor Council’s the AFL-CIO’s county structures. As a former delegate to a CLC here in Alameda County California, I would wager that there was not even a hint of discussion on the floor of that body about this continuing devastation of our hard won gains. I’ll bet not one delegate protested. It is an unwritten (and possibly written) law in the organized labor movement, that you don’t criticize the policies of other Unions no matter how concessionary or disastrous they may be. With the rank and file having little if any control over its representatives at this level a delegate could lose their job and their pension. Yes…it’s like management folks.

The Real Reason For the Downsizing
The crisis in the U.S auto industry has nothing to do with mismanagement as some claim. And while health care costs and cheaper labor overseas undoubtedly contribute to the bosses’ decisions these
factors are not the root cause of the problem. "We're now well past the point in which one or two hot
products can correct the overcapacity we have to justify the staffing levels we maintain." explains Ford's
Ann Stevens. It is overcapacity that lies behind the crisis in worldwide auto production. The auto industry produces more vehicles than it can sell and this crisis is made worse by cutting wages and jobs. But the bosses are driven by the competition of the market to do so. One Chrysler leader commented that the company is sick and needs help. The help comes in form of lower wages and benefits until we will all be working at the Shanghai rate. We must not play this game.

Team Concept
The heads of organized labor have no answer to this destruction of generations of American families and communities except to blame workers from other countries for taking "our" jobs. They accept the bosses' arguments and the bosses vicious profit addicted capitalist system. They argue that workers have to help their individual employer compete in their struggle to make more profit than their rivals, domestic or foreign. The way they enforce this is through the Team Concept that the entire leadership of organized labor has adopted and which paralyzes workers in any attempt to fight back.

The Team Concept is a death sentence for us and we must reject it. It leads to a downward spiral, a race to the bottom. We should take some advice from our ancestors:

"Brethren we conjure you...not to believe a word of what is being said about your interests and those of your employers being the same. Your interests and theirs are in a nature of things, hostile and irreconcilable. Then do not look to them for relief...Our salvation must, through the blessing of God, come from ourselves. It is useless to expect it from those whom our labors enrich." (1)

Divide and Conquer
The strategy of the employers is to divide the young from the old, the retirees from current hires, and most of all, sacrifice the new hires. New hires are a convenient sacrificial lamb for the labor leaders as they are not yet there to vote on a disastrous contract that takes them further down the road to third world conditions. This is what the employers have in mind for the children of those that made the U.S. auto industry what it is today.

We must reject the idea that we have to compete with non-union and instead join with them to collectively rise together in a united struggle against the employers. We must not be thrown in to competition with workers overseas, many of them earning much less than us and working in worse conditions. We join with them against the employers domestic and foreign and not with our employers against them by seeing who can work cheapest, fastest and with less security so the boss can make more profit.

The Chrysler opposition to the UAW leadership’s sell out has been a positive step and inspired thousands of us who have not and will not give up the fight. Even if the contract passes it is an opportunity to build a rank and file movement that can remove the present leadership who are wedded to the market and the profit system. U.S. workers have the power to drive back the employers’ offensive and, despite the decline in auto employment, workers in this industry can lead the way. The U.S. auto industry has a huge economic impact representing about 4% of GDP. For every autoworker employed another 10 jobs are dependent on them and some 20% of total sales tax paid in the U.S is paid by auto. dealers.

There is no doubt in my mind that the Soldiers of Solidarity, a UAW opposition grouping, has had an effect at the rank and file level. Many of its members are genuine fighters who have refused to compromise themselves and betray their principles for a comfortable niche in the workplace or the Union headquarters. This is also an opportunity to build and strengthen this opposition within a still potentially powerful Union. A strong opposition in the UAW, able at some point to take leadership positions can also play a powerful role in re-vitalizing the entire labor movement in the U.S.

But, as I have stressed in previous commentaries on such subjects as this; any activists or opposition group intent on turning the tide and reversing years of betrayals by the heads of organized labor in the U.S. must have a strategy and program to fight the employers. It is not simply a matter of more democracy although we all welcome this in the Unions; it is about what we fight for and how we plan to win it. A fighting Union will attract the best, most committed worker/activists and this will strengthen democracy.

There will be many rank and file workers in auto who will be incensed at this betrayal at GM, Chrysler and at soon to be at Ford. We must demand not what the employers, the labor bureaucracy and their friends in the Democratic Party tell us is realistic. We must start from a position of demanding what we and all worker’s need to live a decent life.

Some suggestions on what can be done to build on the recent opposition:

In-plant Committees.
It is in the plant and workplace where the real power of the working class is concentrated. The main task for activists and those opposing this contract is not just to vote against it but also to build the strength of the rank and file to strengthen the Union presence on the job.

The building of in-plant committees made up of rank and file shop floor workers and based on a "direct action -fight to win" strategy rather than “defensive” struggles would be a powerful step toward returning to the traditions of our past. A “fight to win strategy” would mean plant occupations or sit-ins, as this is what won us what we have in the first place. The bosses are more protective of their machinery than their workers. Outside walking the picket lines should be seen by as a very weak tactic.

These in-plant committees should also take up all the issues in the plant, from the smallest to the largest, and involve the workers in the plant in these struggles. These in-plant committees should take these struggles to the management and employers in the plant through work to rule and sit ins but also outside the plant by taking the fight to the neighborhoods, clubs, churches of the bosses and shareholders and exposing these people as the monsters they are, destroying peoples lives.

The building of the in-plant committees should be linked up with in-plant committees in other parts of the country, in other countries and throughout the auto and auto supply industry as a whole internationally. The international link up of in-plant committees and opposition committees in the union locals can be the network that can lead the successful "direct action fight to win" struggle worldwide.

In addition, these committees can organize the following:

* Rank and file shop floor mass meetings at Delphi, GM, Ford, Chrysler and throughout the entire US auto industry.

* Election of shop floor delegates to a conference of all US autoworkers, union and non-union alike.

Such a national conference representing all workers in the auto industry, union, non-union, clerical and blue collar, skilled and unskilled would take up such tasks as:

* Developing a strategy for implementing and returning to the methods of the thirties, plant occupations, mass pickets, taking the fight to the bosses in their neighborhoods and places of social activity and worship.

* The rejection of the Team Concept and the present worship of market forces by the present UAW and AFL-CIO leadership.

* This conference would initiate a drive for an international conference of all autoworkers and all auto supply workers internationally. In the last analysis this fight will be won internationally or it will not be won.

* This conference to develop a program that will meet workers' needs drawing in all sections of the working class and our communities.

*We must demand the opening of the books of all these companies.
* No concessions/no layoffs in auto or any industry.
* Creation of jobs through a shorter workweek, 30 hours no loss in pay
*Organize the unorganized
* For a $15 an hour national minimum wage for all workers
* Free health care and education for all
* For an independent political party of the working class

*We must also explain that on a privately owned profit run basis the auto industry has been run into the ground. It does not work. That is why it is now firing tens of thousands of workers and cutting wages and benefits. This has to be ended.

*We must stand for the entire auto and auto supply industry to be taken out of private hands and put into collective ownership under workers control and management. The bosses have ruined the industry and squandered their right to run it. They must no longer be allowed through their ownership to threaten and blackmail the workers to accept their terms.

*Collective ownership and workers control and management would also allow the industry to be developed along lines that would be less environmentally damaging as we all want to live in a cleaner world.

Such an approach and demands would be a pole of attraction to millions of workers who have given up, or who have lost confidence that we can win. There is no doubt due to the role of the labor leadership that we have been driven backwards and that our great traditions have been weakened.

But we have been here before. We have fought back under worse conditions than the present and we will not be driven to third world conditions without a fight, and fight we will.

Richard Mellor
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