By JIM FARRELL
At midnight on Sept. 15, the United Autoworkers Union (UAW) contract with General Motors (GM) expired and almost 50,000 workers downed tools and walked off the job. During the recession, the UAW and its members had agreed to deep concessions to keep GM afloat. Now, GM is prospering and CEO Mary Barra is one of the highest paid executives in the U.S., with a total compensation package of almost $22 million annually—281 times the median salary of a GM employee.
Meanwhile, workers are subjected to two-tier wages and threats to their pensions and health care. The company cut off workers’ health care just a few days into the strike and only recently reinstated it. One GM worker in Langhorne, Pa., told Socialist Action, “How can people live like this? It’s wrong.”
On Oct. 1, the UAW notified members that the latest offer from GM was unacceptable. UAW lead negotiator Terry Dittes said, “This proposal that the company provided to us on day 15 of the strike did not satisfy your contract demands or needs. There were many areas that came up short like health care, wages, temporary employees, skilled trades and job security to name a few.” After over two weeks on strike, workers are beginning to receive $250 in weekly strike pay.
Solidarity is key
The solidarity between established and more recently hired workers against the two-tier is a sign of a shift in class consciousness. The GM strike has reportedly caused workers at Ford and Fiat-Chrysler to advocate for a walkout in solidarity with GM workers. Teamsters, Steelworkers, Communications Workers, and other unions have demonstrated solidarity with strikers and shown up at the picket lines. The Teamsters union announced that its drivers would not deliver cars to GM dealerships, but nonunion independent truckers and FEDEX drivers have not honored picket lines.
Eleven GM strikers were arrested on Sept. 18 at the Spring Hill, Tenn., plant for blocking a scab truck. GM is also threatening to reopen assembly plants in Arlington, Texas, and Wentzville, Missouri, with scabs. There have been several incidents of strikers being hit by scab vehicles. This writer witnessed a nonunion delivery truck drive through the line at the GM parts warehouse in Langhorne, Pa.—almost running down several strikers.
One of the contentious issues in the strike is the hiring of temporary workers, who, despite being union members, work for half the hourly wage of permanent workers, and with fewer benefits. There is also no clearly laid-out path for temps to become permanent employees. The hiring of temps was one of the concessions given to the three main U.S. automakers during the Great Recession.
One GM worker, John Ryan Bishop, a UAW member and former temp, told the Detroit Free Press, “As a temp you’re doing the same work as the other people and making half the wages, and you don’t get profit sharing, and you feel like you contributed just as much to this and you don’t reap the award…” Temp workers also don’t qualify for participation in the 401K retirement program.
Speaking at a strike rally in Langhorne, Pa., on Sept. 28, a Local 2177 officer said, “One thing I want to say is that General Motors totally miscalculated this strike. They totally did not think that the UAW was going to come together like they did. … All across the country, including our local union, this strike has brought us all closer together.”
He went on to discuss the issue of temps: “One of the big issues is the temporary employees. Some of the employees, temporary employees, are doing the same exact job as people making the full rate. It’s wrong. They get no benefits, no bonuses.”
The restructuring of auto
For decades, autoworkers have been under attack by the Detroit-based “Big Three,” who blamed foreign competition and lack of worker productivity for their troubles. The UAW has been a willing accomplice by supporting labor-management cooperation schemes and workplace restructuring. Automation, increased use of outsourcing, the increased number of temps, and downsizing have changed the auto industry.
A 2008 article in Labor Notes pointed out, “… the UAW’s deal with the auto makers was this: do whatever you need to do to boost profits, as long as you maintain the wages and benefits of (a steadily shrinking number of) workers at the Big Three. That “whatever” included lean production, outsourcing to nonunion parts plants at home and abroad, the sale of GM’s and Ford’s parts divisions in 1999 and 2000 (lopping off 52,000 workers) and, today, buyouts. There were 466,000 GM hourly workers in 1978 and in 2006, 112,000” (End of the Road: If the Auto Industry is Dead What does that Mean for Workers? ).
Another factor in the decline of the UAW is the growth of nonunion plants in the South, as well as the spread of right-to-work laws in the Midwest. Five states in the Midwest contain the majority of Big Three operations—Kentucky, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin—and since 2011, all but Ohio have become right-to-work states. In 2018, UAW membership declined by 35,000, but the number of autoworkers in these states increased by almost 160,000 since 2011.
Distrust of a class-collaborationist union bureaucracy is most certainly a factor in the failure of organizing drives in the South. Why would you trust a union that clearly has sold out the interests of members? The corruption and lack of backbone of the union bureaucrats is one explanation for the number of UAW members who have quit in right-to-work states.
A surge in workers’ struggles
The increased combativity among workers is manifested in an uptick in strike activity and organizing. The teachers’ strikes in various states caused increased excitement and awareness of unions.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, “In 2018, there were 20 major work stoppages involving 485,000 workers. … The number of major work stoppages beginning in 2018 was the highest since 2007 (21 major work stoppages). The number of workers involved was the highest since 1986. … Educational services and health care and social assistance industry groups accounted for over 90 percent” of idled workers.
In July, nonunion coal miners in Kentucky began a protest against their former employer, Blackjewel LLC, by blocking a railroad track that carries coal trains, demanding back pay after being laid off. Blackjewel had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on July 1, leaving 1700 miners and their families in dire straits. Many of these workers had voted for Trump because of his promise to revitalize the coal industry. These workers’ decision to take collective action, and the support given by the surrounding community and the labor movement, shows the potential for the mobilization and self-organization of workers. The blockaders abandoned their protest on Sept. 26, but the coal trains have not moved pending a court decision.
Back to the future: The need for a class-struggle fightback
The UAW bureaucracy, wracked by accusations of corruption, has repeatedly sold out their members and other industry workers in the past. What is needed is a clear, class-struggle upsurge by rank-and-file autoworkers.
To achieve their demands, the union must decisively strike to win. The UAW should take a page from the past history of the union and lead an all-out strike against the auto bosses. This includes mass blockades and occupations if necessary. The Blackjewel miners offered an important lesson by obstructing the railways leading out of the mine. An increasingly dissatisfied and combative working class would follow the lead of such militant strike actions.
In recent days, various Democrats running for president have shown up at picket lines to declare their solidarity, but they are doing very little to mobilize their voting base to join the lines.
In 2007, Obama said: “Understand this: If American workers are being denied their right to organize and collectively bargain, when I’m in the White House, I’ll put on a comfortable pair of shoes myself. I’ll walk on that picket line with you, as president of the United States of America.” Despite his promises, however, Obama did very little for union members, and his policies favored the interests of the ruling rich. During his campaign, Obama promised to fight for the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), which was quickly forgotten.
The Democrats, who like to portray themselves as “friends of labor” during election cycles, are, in fact, enforcers for the class enemy on Wall Street. Militant unions cannot fight for their members alone. The labor movement’s subordination to the Democrats must end. What is needed is a combined struggle to build a Labor Party based on fighting unions.