UAW ranks approve concession-filled contracts

In late October, members of the United Auto Workers at the Big Three voted to approve concession-filled contracts under heavy pressure from the Administrative Caucus that rules the UAW. All three contracts maintain the devastating two-tier status of new and recent hires, contain no wage increases for “traditional” tier autoworkers, no cost-of-living increases, and many work-rule changes affecting skilled trades, subcontracting, and other provisions of the contract. The UAW leadership negotiated this weak agreement despite the fact that all of the Big Three have reported profits, and in the case of Ford $6 billion in 2010 profits. 

The new contracts are the first negotiated after the auto industry bailouts at GM and Chrysler negotiated by the Obama administration, which arranged for the creation of two-tier wage scales and other substantial concessions. As part of that bailout the UAW gave up its right to strike at GM and Chrysler.  Ford, which remained out of bankruptcy, also sought concessions from the UAW to “remain competitive,” and the UAW bureaucrats happily agreed, only to see them rejected by the members.

That agreement created the hated two-tier wage level, where new workers make half of traditional auto workers toiling on the same assembly line. The second-tier workers also are not in any pension fund, instead receiving 401k plans. The UAW also allowed the Big Three to outsource non-assembly work.  The concessions were sold to workers at the time as necessary since the Big Three were allegedly on the brink of going under. However, no such useful excuse exists now; all three automakers were profitable last year.

The new agreements would raise wages for second tier workers from around $14-$15 an hour to $19 an hour by the end of the contracts, but the second tier will continue to receive inferior health and retirement benefits, and no means to ever become first tier. First-tier workers will receive no wage increase, despite being on a wage freeze since 2004. Instead, they will receive contract-signing bonuses ranging from $1400 at Chrysler to $6000 at Ford.
The concession train does not stop at economics, as the UAW gave up significant work-rule provisions of the contracts, especially affecting skilled trade workers. The contracts allow for this higher paid work to be subject to reduced classifications, with more outsourcing to outside workers and (lower paid) assembly-line workers. This is why skilled trade workers at Chrysler voted down the contract, even though the UAW imposed it anyway based on a small majority vote among assembly line workers.

These contracts are the first to not give retirees a pension increase. And buried in the GM contract is a side agreement that says if UAW members approve the contract they will give GM and the UAW leaders the permission to “amend” the pension plan in future negotiations. The UAW could negotiate massive cuts to GM pensions, or even its elimination, without a further vote from members.

UAW President Bob King and his henchman put on an arm-twisting campaign to the membership to get these concessionary contracts passed.  First was the usual job security promise.  All 3 automakers “agreed” to increase jobs at U.S. factories.  However, many UAW rank and file point out the UAW has been exchanging concessions for job security in nearly every contract for at least 30 years, only to watch their ranks drop dramatically.  Since 2001 alone, the UAW has lost 50% of its membership.  Bob King next used the fear of bankruptcy at Ford to make those workers swallow the bitter concessions.  At GM and Chrysler he reminded workers they had no right to strike and a no vote would result in arbitration where worker may even get a worse deal. 

The UAW could have gone another route. Instead of preparing members for concessions, it could have organized them for battle against the Big Three, no-strike pledges be damned. The UAW could have used the growing outrage at the 1% reflected in the Occupy Wall Street movement as a means to build public support for a strike.
They could have pointed to the billions of dollars in profits made by the Big Three while second tier workers survive on poverty level wages. Tens of thousands of auto workers striking against three multi-billion-dollar corporations could have become a symbol of the fight of the 99% against the 1% and would have been supported enthusiastically by rank-and-file trade unionists, occupiers, and working people across the country. Instead, the UAW only organized a demoralizing defeat.                

In order to build a stronger labor movement that can reach and organize the vast majority of workers who are unorganized, the labor movement must first mobilize the ranks of the already organized to fight back against the bosses’ offensive. Only through such actions can the labor movement grow and build unionization in the vast majority of workplaces.

Settling short on one the most historically important contracts, the UAW leadership has taken a step back from fighting for the rights of not only its own membership but also the entire working class. How can the UAW organize the transplant automakers when they are taking massive concessions in the organized auto plants? As autoworker Dave Dogonski in Detroit put it in an article in Labor Notes, “How can the union in one breath support things like Occupy Wall Street but at the same time let the corporations take windfall profits and not get us a raise?” 

> The article above was written by Dave Bernt, and first appeared in the November 2011 print edition of Socialist Action newspaper.

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