Courageous UAW strike ends with few gains

By DAVID JONES

Some 47,897 United Automobile Workers (UAW) ended their six-week strike against U.S. auto manufacturing giant General Motors on October 31. Fifty UAW-organized plants were closed across the country with the union demanding increased job security, a gateway for temporary workers to become permanent, better pay and to retain healthcare benefits. The contract was approved by a vote of 57 percent, more an indication that workers believed that the result was “the best that they could get,” rather than what they had fought for.

Noting that the central focus of the strikers was “equality,” that is, the abolition of the hated multiple-tier wage and classification system, long-term Labor Notes staff writer Jane Slaughter summed up the essentials: “The same tiers that existed in the old contract will exist in the new one. Some of today’s temps will be hired into the second tier—but new ones will be hired to take their place, at lower wages than before.”

Slaughter continued, “But this is the auto industry. Layoffs happen. I met workers who’d been laid off multiple times over the years, as temps—and each time, they would start over again at the hire-in wage of less than $16 an hour. The new proposal changes that—temps will no longer get any pay hikes at all. They will make the same $16.67 wage the entire time they remain in that status.” Slaughter continues with a sad listing of at least ten tiers in the new contract, each designed by GM, with UAW officials’ complicity, to extract ever new profits out of the hides of workers.

She concludes: “The tier system has left thousands of auto workers performing the same jobs union members did in the past for far less pay and with fewer, if any, benefits.”

Standing near a burn barrel outside Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly Wednesday, Bruno, a worker who declined to state his name, said he would vote yes because “we’re not going to get any more out of them. It’s unfortunate we had to go out to get the same thing we got before.” Another Hamtramck worker, Worley, worried about the union’s future. “They say ‘we’ll get ’em next time,’” he said, “but there may not be a next time. We lost 30,000 jobs in the last 10 years.” The UAW now has just under 400,000 members, down from 1.5 million in 1979, and 540,000 in 2006. The decline in union membership at GM is matched by the same decline across the entire trade union movement, with today’s percentage of organized workers the lowest in more than a century. The statistics for the number of major strikes over the same period are similarly revealing.

From 1947 to 1981, strikes of all kinds involving at least 1,000 workers were all in the triple digits. From 1982 to 2019, no strikes of over 1,000 occurred, and during most of those years the total strikes of any duration was under 30, and only 5 in 2009 and 7 in 2017. The total number of workers involved was in the millions until 1980, sinking to 12,500 in 2009 and 25,300 in 2017, coinciding almost exactly with the beginning of the U.S. employers’ relentless offensive against organized labor.

At the same time, “foreign” automakers, such as Nissan, Volkswagen, Mercedes Benz, all with new billion-dollar manufacturing plants, generally employing in excess of 1,000 workers, (4,000 at the Vance, Alabama Mercedes Benz plant) flourish largely in the American South, where average hourly wages in non-union plants run between $23 and $25 an hour, according to the Center for Automotive Research (CAR). With the new contract today, organized UAW plants are increasingly “competitive” with non-union manufacturing, a boon to all employers and yet another monstrous concession by UAW tops who, on their knees, make the one percent ever richer to maintain union jobs.

Failed UAW strategy repeated

On day one of the strike, the UAW bureaucrats began with the failed strategy pioneered more than a half century ago by then-top UAW official Walter Reuther, who suggested that striking GM only, as opposed to striking simultaneously the Big Three automakers, would exert maximum pressure on a singe corporation. This “one-at-a-time strategy” might have been good for the Union Army in the Civil War, but in the modern automotive industry the Big Three or their modern-day auto titan corporations are well-prepared, if not grateful to the UAW. The non-struck corporations simply agree on private pacts with the “target company” that include “mutual financial aid” as a part of their unbreakable united front against the union. The unstruck corporations, who obviously sell more cars than expected, agree to share their otherwise unexpected boon with the struck company. No doubt they found a way to make their “contributions” qualify as tax deductible to boot!

After sufficiently extracting its pound of flesh from the UAW negotiators, GM sweetened its final offer with an $11,000 “signing bonus” for selected categories of workers. No doubt, this too is fully tax deductible—by GM, not by their employees.

The deadly routinism practiced during the strike by the UAW misleaders is captured well by a Labor Notes reporter. “Yes, production was shut down tight, with scabbing negligible, although at the Tech Center police escorted scab janitors through the lines with no hassle from picketers. Bank of America estimated that GM lost $2 billion in the strike’s first four weeks—though the strike was begun when dealers’ lots were full, and customers did not feel the impact. So timing was, shall we say, not well considered.”

Labor Notes continues: “UAW members’ role was confined to picketing and to volunteering for duties such as snack delivery. Before the strike, officials made no attempt to involve members in a contract campaign. Not a button was distributed in the plants. There was no survey of the membership, no contract action teams, no bargaining bulletins to keep members in the loop. No ‘practice picketing,’ no turn-down of overtime—some plants building popular models worked scads of overtime right up till the bell—no outreach to the public, no open bargaining. Members knew only what they read in the media. Although union statements referred to GM’s $35 billion in profits over the last three years, [following its unprecedented government bailout –Ed.] there was no attempt to rally the public against what could have been this year’s poster child for corporate greed. It almost seemed as if UAW officials didn’t want to be too rude to the counterparts with whom their usual relationship is ‘partnership.’”

The watchword of the UAW workers at the strike’s outset was “equality.” They struck to return their union to a single wage scale applicable to all GM workers and an end to the heinous multiple-tier system aimed at dividing workers in ever-increasing and humiliating ways. In the end, the lower-tier workers voted against the contract, while the more relatively secure higher-tier ranks, skeptical that more could be won, reluctantly voted approval.

UAW leadership corruption

Here we can only add to our critique of the failed class collaborationist “strategies” of the UAW misleaders their outright corruption. In August, IRS and FBI agents raided the home of Gary Jones, newly elected UAW president and just one of several targets in a multi-state raid. Although Jones has not been charged with any crime, twelve people have been charged in the corruption investigation, including Edward Robinson, a union official with ties to Jones. Jones has taken a leave of absence, apparently on the advice of the union’s executive board. Rory Gamble, UAW Vice President for Ford Motor Co., has been designated “Acting President.”

Former UAW official Joseph Ashton, who “retired” from the UAW in 2014, has been accused by federal prosecutors of demanding and accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in kickbacks and improperly using his position to illegally benefit himself and others. An alleged scheme identified by federal prosecutors involved a nearly $4 million contract with the joint UAW-GM Center for Human Resources training facility for commemorative watches. According to the filing, Ashton demanded $250,000 from the vendor, which he had instructed to create a new company to produce the watches, which were never distributed to members.

Today, the $4 million order remains packed away in a warehouse near the Detroit River. Still, federal investigators say, the deal accomplished what it was intended to do. The UAW official who arranged it collected a $250,000 kickback. Two others split $95,000 disguised as payments for “furniture.” That still left well over $1 million in profit for the vendor — a Philadelphia chiropractor who got into the watch business solely to recoup a bad loan he had made to a friend of one of the union officials, according to Automotive News (August 18, 2019).

 Edward Robinson, a union official with ties to Jones, has been accused of conspiring with union leaders to “embezzle, steal, and unlawfully and willfully abstract” more than $1.5 million from the union for personal gain, according to a criminal filing.  

And there’s more to come. In the dinosaur days of the American labor movement, union leaders used to be busted for accumulating guns, bombs and other devices they felt would be useful for defense against scabs, thugs and cops. Now it’s commemorative watches. No doubt giant corporations like GM have little or no objections to corrupt union officials. In fact, the elite one percent literally write the laws that make their daily theft and extraction of wealth via a myriad of devices, “legal.” With regard to corrupt union officials, the boss class, with government spy agency assistance, is more than skilled at blackmailing union crooks in return for their “cooperation” at the bargaining table.

What union activists across the country witnessed for six long weeks was some 50,000 proud and courageous GM workers taking the field of action at a time when the employer offensive against the broad working class has reached fever pitch. A decisive victory for the GM strikes, and especially a victory based on workers uniting in a fight for equal pay and working conditions for all, would have represented an inspiring example. While workers fully demonstrated their capacity to endure great hardships toward this end, their sacrifice was fundamentally undermined by a hardened bureaucratic misleadership whose sole outlook is to maintain its “partnership” with the bosses and thus preserve, if not expand, corporate profits regardless of the cost to the ranks. The forging of a class struggle alternative leadership to these sellout bureaucrats will stand high on the agenda of serious union fighters in the period ahead.