Rank & File Autoworkers Meet

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In late January, more than 80 U.S. and Canadian auto workers met in Flint, MI to discuss the impact of the worst contract ever shoved down the throats of the membership. As a result, UAW members and their allies further solidified a loose network of auto worker and community activists. After a day of enthusiastic discussions, important groundwork was laid for the beginnings of an industry-wide class struggle current, starting with a statement and call for the elimination of two-tier workplaces.

Participants came from as far as California but most were from the Midwest. UAW members from the “Big Three” auto companies, parts manufacturers, Freightliner assembly, and agricultural implement assembly were present. Newly hired workers in their 20s were present along with retirees. Workers from other unions such as the Boilermakers local 492 from Meredosia, IL and UAW-represented workers from Con Selmer in Elkhart, IN were also present. Five executive board members of UAW Local 3520 in Cleveland, NC, who were fired by the Freightliner Manufacturing Plant also attended the conference. About $1,000 was collected for the Five.

The “Big Three” of Ford, Chrysler, and General Motors insist they will die without massive concessions in wages and benefits. Their only talking point during negotiations for the latest contract was: “Vote yes or your plant will close.” These were the most-repeated words in plants and union halls throughout the industry. Yet this is nothing new. For the last 25 years, these companies have squeezed concessions out of the UAW based upon the deception that the union and the corporations are a “team”.

Unfortunately, the UAW leadership has enthusiastically supported this approach. The result of this “teamwork” has devastated auto workers by destroying their jobs, wages, and benefits. The workforce of these three companies has declined from 750,000 in 1979, when so-called “team bargaining” began, to just 170,000 today. Plants have continued to close despite promises of job security in exchange for concessions. Now, the 2007 contract has imposed a two-tier system of wages throughout the industry, which means new hires will be paid 50 to 67 percent less than existing workers.

Instead of fighting against two-tier and for a shorter workweek with no loss of pay to avoid layoffs, the UAW leadership continues to toe the corporate line that the “poverty-stricken” automakers have no option but to destroy more jobs and take away more wages and benefits. Executive salaries, bonuses, tax abatements – i.e. corporate greed – are sacred cows that the automakers and UAW International never consider touching as they bargain away our jobs.

The “Big Three” have broken every promise that they’ve ever made to the UAW, so why should our leadership buy their “empty pockets” line? The UAW should demand that the “Big Three” open their books – the real budgets and accounts, not “highlights” – so that UAW accountants can review the overall finances, and then we can really judge whether or not they are “poverty-stricken.” Even if the companies truly are financially exhausted, should our wages and benefits be slashed, or our jobs taken away and perfectly useful plants shuttered? No! If the “Big Three” are truly going bankrupt then we should demand that these companies be nationalized, and run under democratic workers’ control. If the government can give huge subsidies to the agri-business giants or bail out the airline industry and banks like Bear Stearns, they can nationalize the “Big Three” and offer compensation only to those in genuine need – not the multi-millionaire CEOs.

The “Delphi Plan” of radical wage cuts, elimination of benefits, and knocking the teeth out of the UAW has apparently succeeded. Why? As the statement issued at the Flint conference points out:

“The UAW negotiated a supplemental two-tier wage agreement for new hires at Delphi Corp … The UAW international executive board argued that the ‘future hire group is a null class.’ The segregation of future union members into a ‘null class’ is a ruthless act of discrimination against an entire generation, and another example of the failure of competitiveness to secure jobs. Delphi subsequently used bankruptcy as a strategy to further restructure and destroy incomes. Within four years 27,000 out of 33,000 union members were eliminated at Delphi and the remaining workers were brought down to the lower wage and benefit scale.”

The sooner the “Big Three” can push older workers out the door, the sooner they can pay new workers less. What they don’t realize is that in the long-term, they are digging their own graves. These workers will be younger yet more militant. It will only be a matter of time before the conditions they experience lead to their radicalization.

Both active and retired workers’ futures depends on these new workers. By segregating future union workers as a “null class”, we invite disaster and divisiveness. If new hires are treated as a “null class” now, one day they will classify senior workers and retirees as a “null class”. Wage discrimination is not a union idea. Solidarity is. To build solidarity, we have to fight against the two-tier and multi-tiered wage system. Older rank and file militants still in the plants should mentor new members on how to fight back in the plant, organize meetings, and publish rank and file papers and web sites. There is a rich history of labor organizing and militant struggle to learn from.

The declaration issued by the Flint conference explains the basic economics of auto and truck manufacturing: Wages and benefits account for less than 10 percent of the cost of a vehicle and differentials between companies are not significant. Productivity has been rising rapidly in the auto industry; productivity has more than doubled since 1987. The “Big Three” have eliminated the productivity gap with Japanese manufacturers. The new-hire wage rates in UAW contracts with the “Big Three” are now set below the average industrial wage in the U.S., which is itself below that in other major developed countries.

As a result, foreign auto companies manufacturing in the U.S. are relieved of the pressure to match union wages. The legacy of the radical 2007 wage-cutting contract will make it even more difficult for the UAW to organize workers at these non-union companies. But wages weren’t the only casualty of this contract.

UAW leaders also failed to fight for the health care needs of its members and retirees. The “Big Three” demanded they be relieved of billions of dollars in legacy costs for retiree health care. The union leadership agreed to accept responsibility for future coverage through an under-funded Voluntary Employee Beneficiary Association (VEBA). Health insurance for active workers has seriously eroded in the last three years and it will be even more expensive for UAW members when VEBA kicks in.

The leadership should mobilize the membership in conjunction with the rest of the labor movement in a nation-wide campaign for a socialized national health care system. Universal health care will not stop the bosses from attacking our wages, conditions, and benefits, but by fighting for something that will benefit all working people, the UAW can gain much needed support.

But the fight must also be carried out on the political front. The corporate-dominated Democratic Party cannot offer a solution – they are just as much in the pockets of the big HMOs as the Republicans are. The UAW, along with the wider labor movement needs to break with the bosses’ parties and build a mass party of Labor, directly tied to the unions, to politically organize working people to fight for our own interests. And until such a party is built, not a single UAW penny for the Democrats or Republicans! We should use our political funds to run independent labor candidates who can fight for health care for all, repeal Taft-Hartley and other anti-labor laws, and address workers’ economic needs and concerns.

During the Flint conference, discussions about tactics were lively, and a debate ensued between the idea of taking back the union via electoral struggles and the idea of direct collective action on the shop floor. Greg Shotwell of Soldiers of Solidarity said that, “The fundamental problem is we think that electing someone is the answer. We need to look to the rank-and-file for organizing around issues. If we want to effect change, we need to take collective action.” Others, including Bill Fletcher of the Center for Labor Renewal opined that, “Our strategy needs to combine various forms of struggle, including elections.”

The struggle to change the UAW leadership’s policy of “partnership” with the bosses will require various forms of struggle. Organizing the rank and file on the shop floor into Solidarity Committees, “work to rule”, and other actions are important elements in this struggle. But we must also utilize union elections in order to elect leaders that are supported by, accountable to, and able to fight for the rank and file opposition’s platform as part of the overall struggle. Writing off the use of union election campaigns only ensures that the conservative officialdom will remain in control unchallenged.

A growing opposition that keeps the UAW leadership’s feet to the fire and challenges them in union elections will gain support over time – possibly quickly – particularly as young workers hire in and get involved in the union. One demand that should be put forward during union elections is that no union official should be paid more than the highest paid member of the local. The International UAW President should not be paid more than the highest paid rank and file member of the UAW.

Everyone at the conference recognized that the UAW is not the only union that has bargained away equality within the workforce. The conference statement explained what is happening globally between capital and labor: “The corporate blitzkrieg on working people is subsidized with tax abatements while health, education and social programs are slashed to the bone. The parrots of the status quo insist there is no alternative to an economic system that degrades workers, deprives the unfortunate of health care, underdetermines the security of the elderly, and desecrates the environment. It’s a lie. The degradation of the working class is chronic and contagious. We need strategic collective action with allies here and around the world.”

We agree 100 percent. There is an alternative to capitalism: socialism. The campaign against wage discrimination, tied together by the shop floor Solidarity Committees is not only an important toward raising up lower-tier workers, but toward creating an industry-wide class struggle current that fights for a militant defense of jobs, wages and conditions. As the conference statement made clear, the “corporate blitzkrieg” is directed not only at auto workers but at the working class as a whole. Ultimately, what is needed is a class struggle current organized throughout the AFL-CIO and Change to Win federations.

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