By NAT WEINSTEIN
The strike by two United Auto Workers (UAW) locals in Flint is on its way to shutting down all General Motors (GM) plants in the US and much of Canada in response to the company’s spending billions of dollars on factories in developing countries and defaulting on its promise to invest in aging American factories. Moreover, GM is demanding further concession from the union, leading to further massive reductions in jobs.
It’s much more than merely another local strike. The adversaries are headed toward a major test of strength, if not immediately, then by the time of the expiration of the union’s national contract with GM next year. In such major conflicts, either workers or their employers will come out stronger and with a stronger hand in future conflicts between labor and capital. Even a modest victory by the UAW over GM will have far-reaching positive consequences for the working class as a whole, and vice versa.
On June 25th it was reported that the Flint strike had so far idled 147,900 production workers, including 10,400 in Mexico, nearly half of GM’s North American work force. It was also reported that GM had toughened its stance by threatening legal action in the courts in support of the company’s demand that the Flint strike be declared illegal and brought to a halt. GM also declared that it would initiate action to block payment by states of unemployment benefits to laid off workers.
GM further declared its intention to force the union into arbitration. Arbitration imposed on unions in such circumstances tend to result in concessions to the employer they could not otherwise gain. Even if unrealized, GM’s demands are designed to get the government’s help in turning public opinion against the UAW in preparation for an inevitable showdown.
GM sent these demands to Richard Shoemaker, the UAW officer in charge of negotiations with the giant auto corporation and gave the union 48 hours to respond. This toughened stance by the giant auto corporation is the result of the pain inflicted by the loss of an estimated $75 million each day the strike lasts. It also serves as political preparation for the longer-range offensive by capital against labor, sure to follow this strike.
Whether or not this strike leads to a decisive outcome one way or the other, the fact that well over 200,000 UAW members employed by GM are demonstrating enthusiastic support for the 9,200 auto workers in the two struck Flint parts plants is of the greatest significance. Also significant is the uninterrupted horn-honking support to picket lines by passing motorists.
It reflects their understanding that the steady disappearance of “good jobs” in the auto industry and elsewhere, means that many of the sons and daughters of working people can look forward to a future as minimum-wage hamburger flippers and other poverty level jobs, or no jobs at all. (UAW membership, some 1.5 million in the 1970s, has been shrunk to 800,000 today.) But auto corporations, like capitalists everywhere, are relentlessly striving for further reductions in costs; and reducing their payrolls without a loss in production is capitalism’s main means of cutting costs and raising profit margins.
Worker consciousness reaching higher stage
While there has been mounting awareness of the future in store for American workers, this is only the second time since the offensive against living standards was begun in earnest in 1981, that the disappearance of living-wage jobs, has become the central strike issue.
A shift in mass worker consciousness began in 1997 with the strike victory by the Teamsters’ Union over the United Parcel Service (UPS). That victory undercut the myth disseminated by the capitalist press to the effect that “trade unions have lost their clout because strikes don’t work anymore”
The message of the victory by 180,000 Teamster pickets went out to the entire working class. Millions of American workers could see that strikes can be won when the workers are mobilized to block any attempt to run scabs through picket lines.
The Ron Carey-led leadership of that potentially tide-turning strike victory sent such a message to UPS by mobilizing mass picket lines around the clock at parcel-distribution centers across the length and breadth of the United States and Canada. Thus, UPS bosses knew that attempts to hire “replacement workers” would and did result in mass resistance in the one or two places where such an attempt was made.
No less important, the Teamster leadership in that confrontation also won the hearts and minds of working class America by making clear that their struggle was a fight for “good-paying full-time jobs” that would give all American working class families a living wage.
That combined message has clearly come through to striking and idled auto workers. That’s the meaning of pickets telling all who will listen this simple but profound message: that this strike is not just the UAW’s fight but is the fight of the American workers against the fate slated for them and for their sons and daughters by corporate America. (See on the scene report from Flint.)
This is significant for another, related, reason. Up to now, auto and other industrial workers have been, however reluctantly, accepting contracts which gave the country’s giant corporate empires the worst kind of concessions possible. In return for merely maintaining, at best, the real wages of existing union members and sometimes a few dollars more for their own retirement, workers were pressured to approve a very bad trade-off.
Over the years contracts were negotiated which traded away the jobs of new hires and provided reduced pay scales for the few still to be hired. Such tentative agreements submitted for approval by the membership, tended to be rejected. Union officials, however, have followed a policy of repeatedly resubmitting such rotten trade-offs until they wear down the natural resistance of their membership. In effect, union officials made the decision to give up what they had no right to give up-the quantity and quality of jobs, many of which were slated to go to their own members’ children.
Meaning of the government’s assault on union independence
Corporate America and its wholly owned capitalist government counter-attacked in hopes they could obliterate the lesson of the Teamsters’ tide-turning victory over UPS. They began by launching a media and legal offensive against Carey and the Teamsters Union on trumped up charges made in a kangaroo court. It was at the same time a government-led, capitalist assault on the right of all unions to democratically elect leaders of their choice and democratically determine all aspects of union policy. Most of all, it was designed to crush a rebirth of a class struggle movement in the egg.
However the UAW strike against GM is convincing evidence that the re-vitalization of American labor set off by the Teamster victory over UPS is alive and well. Moreover, however this strike ends up, it won’t be the end, but only the beginning of a new rise in class consciousness and a resurgence of the American working class. Such a fighting reaction by the working class to the uninterrupted deterioration of its living standards was and is irrepressible. The long-delayed fightback has begun!
What makes GM run
But to understand why GM is risking provoking a generalized upsurge by the American working class, it’s necessary to understand that the developing crisis of global capitalism is reaching a new stage of ever more intensive competition. GM is not merely intent on eliminating jobs, driving down wages and benefits, and intensifying the rate of exploitation of its workers-it is also struggling for dominance, and even survival, in the inter-imperialist commercial war for market-share.
And this struggle for world domination boils down to which imperialism can lower the costs of labor more than its competitors. Thus in this global capitalist jungle, red in tooth and claw, the international working class is first and foremost among those whose life-blood stains capitalist teeth and claws in the course of the currently deepening inter-imperialist conflict.
That’s the way it is, and nothing can stop the intensifying struggle between capitalist and capitalist, and between the capitalists as a class and the workers as a class. But the irresistible forces of history are on the side of the working class. And it’s history, not accident, that helps us understand events. Thus, it’s not entirely accidental that the first union to launch the fightback was the Teamsters, and the second, the UAW.
Both these unions have a rich history of victorious struggles. The Teamsters in 1934 in their Minneapolis-wide strikes and later their eleven-state organizing campaigh which transformed a moribund craft union of some 80,000 at the end of 1933 into the powerful industrial union of 1.4 million that it is today. And neither is it accidental that the current UAW struggle erupted in Flint, the birthplace of the earth-shaking sitdown strike victory in 1937 that was decisive in organizing all of GM and the giant auto industry into the powerful industrial union that it still is today.
This strike against GM and the Teamster victory over UPS are the first light of a new dawn for long-suffering American workers. Full support by all labor to the UAW and its striking members is on the order of the day! Their victory would go down in history as step toward the ultimate victory of all workers everywhere!