By CHARLES WALKER
“While there is a lower class, I am in it.”
-Eugene V. Debs
What’s happening to some Henderson, Kentucky, autoworkers might not disturb the final rest of the late autoworkers president, Walter Reuther. But it’s got to have the ground heaving and shaking around the coffin of Eugene V. Debs, the legendary workers’ leader who was born and buried just a few hours drive from the Ohio River town that’s home to UAW Local 2036.
The members of this local union are engaged in a life-and-death struggle with Accuride Corp., a major supplier of steel wheels for trucks.
In fact, what’s happening to the Local 2036 autoworkers should upset any worker with a shred of solidarity for other workers. But it’s obvious that the top UAW leaders who mistakenly call their Michigan headquarters “Solidarity House” don’t share Debs’s anguish. Just as obvious is that the “Solidarity House” leaders have lost the trust of their Local 2036 members, who have been striking the local Accuride plant for nearly four years.
‘Take ’em out!’
The authorized strike by over 400 autoworkers began on Feb. 20, 1998, after the workers lopsidedly rejected (371-9) a harsh, concessionary contract offer that would authorize the company to subcontract out any and all bargaining unit work.
The regional director at the time, Ron Gettlefinger, according to the local union’s president, Billy Robinson, told the local union three times that day to “take ’em out.” Today, Gettlefinger is poised in June to replace Steven Yokich, UAW international president, who is retiring.
The strikers thought they had a strong hand. The company has 80 percent of the heavy-duty steel wheel business, and has only one other plant (in Canada), and UAW plants get 95 per cent of Accuride’s production. All the top UAW leadership had to do, the strikers thought, was to let the other UAW local unions know that the Accuride wheels now were scab wheels.
Billy Robinson says the strike wouldn’t have lasted more than four weeks, if the UAW had just spread the word among 13,000 union members at a Louisville, Ky., Ford plant.
But only a month later, the workers decided the strike wasn’t working and voted unconditionally to return to their jobs. The plan was that “we’ll work to rule; we’ll do what we have to do [on the shop floor].” However, once again, the workers voted (354-9) to reject the proposed contract. But even before the vote, the company counterpunched, locking the strikers out.
More concessions demanded
In September, the company made another offer, retaining the earlier concessions and adding further outrageous provisions to allow Accuride to unilaterally change the pension and medical plans. The new offer was rejected overwhelmingly.
The bosses continued to make new offers that got “progressively worse. For the next year, we refused to vote on anything,” Robinson says. But by then, the strikers discovered they were fighting a two-front battle.
A month earlier, the strikers had been told by the international union that “as of the last day of August, you won’t have any strike insurance, you won’t have any sick pay.” Robinson says, “I got the regional director, Terry Thurman, on the phone. He said, ‘Tell them to go back to work.’ How the hell can I tell them to go back to work when we’ve been locked out for 18 months? He wanted us to tell the company, ‘we’ve lost our benefits now, so you’ve got to take us back.'”
In other words, the UAW rep was advising the locked-out workforce to try collective begging.
At a membership meeting, Robinson told the ranks, “This is the saddest day of my life. I feel like the guts have been pulled out of me. I can tell you today that what Accuride couldn’t accomplish, the UAW international has done in one fell swoop. They’ve deserted you.”
The ranks voted once again, and once again showed their determination to “stick together. We’re not going back until we get what we came out for.”
The locked-out autoworkers-virtually on their own-started working to get their story out to other workers. Using the internet and handbills, “we put out a tremendous amount of literature,” Robinson says.
Of course, the Solidarity House officials knew what the strikers were doing and didn’t like it. Called to a Detroit meeting, the Local 2036 representatives were accused by the top UAW officials of not bargaining with Accuride in a “prudent and realistic way,” and were falsely charged with not holding secret ballot votes.
The real purpose of the meeting was revealed when UAW President Steven Yokich said, “I don’t give a damn how many e-mails you put out, how many web sites you put up, we’re the most powerful union around, and you aren’t going to bother me, and you’re not the first ones we’ve cut off.”
Shortly after, Yokich put an “administrator” in charge of Local 2036. Yet surprisingly, six months later, the UAW reinstated the strikers’ benefits and strike pay, for a while at double the old amount of $175 a week.
But once again the UAW bureaucratic bullies are threatening the locked-out workforce. Robinson says they’ve been told, “If you don’t ratify that contract, the IEB [International Executive Board] will pull your charter.” Further, the UAW told the workers it would stop paying their strike benefits Jan. 15, despite a nearly $900 million strike fund surplus.
To date, the workers have voted six times to reject proposed contracts that each time demanded more sacrifices from their workers. The last time they voted, workers rejected the contract by a 97 percent majority.
Robinson says that if they give in to Accuride and the UAW tops, no more than 110 workers will get back inside the plant. And those that do get back in will be subjected to close scrutiny. And those who don’t meet the company’s acceptable performance levels will be “laid off regardless of seniority.”
It’s not clear why the workers were encouraged by the international union to strike Accuride, if the UAW in Detroit didn’t intend to back them up. Perhaps the UAW tops misjudged the situation, thinking that Accuride wasn’t serious about its concessionary demands. After all, bluffing, even to the point of recommending strike action is not unheard of.
Sadly, there’s another explanation more consistent with the UAW bureaucrats’ actions since the strike began. That is, the UAW tops figured the ranks would accept the concessions once they had missed a few paychecks.
Emil Mazey, a onetime UAW big shot, once explained, “I think that strikes make ratification easier. Even though the worker may not think so, when he votes on a contract he is reacting to economic pressures. I really believe that if the wife is raising hell and the bills are piling up, he may be more apt to settle than otherwise” (“The Company and the Union,” by William Serrin, 1972).
If Accuride and the union bureaucrats thought they could use economic leverage against the workers’ families to force the Local 2036 members to buckle, they’ve got to be wondering what kind of union workers they are dealing with. Of course, Debs isn’t wondering. He knows and he’s in their corner!