United Auto Workers in Concessions Talks with the Big Three

The Big Three automakers are now carrying on contract negotiations with the United Auto Workers (UAW) union. This will be the first big contract negotiation since the bailout of the automakers and the creation of a “second tier” class of workers that are paid half the starting wage of the older “first tier” workers. The auto industry capitalists are out for blood.

Four thousand jobs are slated for elimination at Ford's Michigan Assembly Plant in Wayne, Michigan, which comes on the heels of some 700 layoffs in June. It is likely that the Ford Focus and C-Max models of vehicles will see their production moved to Mexico. FIAT-Chrysler is also threatening to shed 6,500 jobs at its Jeep plant in Toledo, Ohio. This puts some 10,500 jobs under threat from the very start of the negotiations. At the same time auto manufacturers have posted record profits, with Ford posting $1.9 billion while Fiat-Chrysler posted $1.4 billion and GM posted $1.35 billion in profits during the recent fiscal quarter.

Labor unions as adjuncts to the Democratic Party support Obama's policy of “insourcing” of industry via poverty level wages brought about with labor-management collusion. Thus the unions have not called strikes and when strikes do occur the unions intervene to call off the strikes as quickly as possible.

Financially, unions are doing quite well. The UAW has almost $1 billion in assets with $661 million in securities. The American Federation of Teachers has $104 million in assets despite their declining union membership.

  • The Service Employees International Union, United Food and Commercial Workers, and the North American Buildings Trades Unions endorsed Obama's call to cut the benefits of current retirees whose pensions are held in multi-employer pension funds, impacting almost 1 million retirees.
  • In 2010 the UAW pushed through a contract at the Mitsubishi Plant in Normal, Illinois where workers got a $4 per hour pay cut and lost all second shift positions at the plant all in the name of “saving” jobs, that today in 2015, are being lost anyway.
  • AFSCME in Illinois backed a state bill that bans their members from striking despite catastrophic declines in union membership. Despite the collapse of their union membership AFSCME nationally is calling for dues increases which in turn will cause more workers to exit the unions for good.
  • The Los Angeles County Federation of Labor (AFL-CIO) called for a minimum wage exception for employers who hire union workers thus circumventing local minimum wage laws effectively calling for the creation of sub-minimum wage unions.
  • The United Steel Workers this year, denied strike benefits to striking oil refinery workers forcing 30,000 striking workers to accept an all-concessions contract. The USW had $150 million dollars in strike funds.

While speaking to the UAW Convention, President Dennis Williams claimed opposition to a third tier wage scale for UAW workers. This is contradicted by the reality that a third tier already exists in the auto manufacturing supply chain. Auto parts are already being made today by workers earning $11 per hour, as the Lear Corporation of Hammond, Indiana which makes auto seats. The Lear Seating Plant had a one-day walkout where the UAW called them back claiming they had eliminated the two-tier wage system, when in fact they'd helped introduce a third tier of even lower paid workers. The union didn't just agree to this, the union helped create this situation, the leaders of the unions and the auto industry executives are the same people. The UAW owns a majority of stock in GM and FIAT-Chrysler.

This isn't just another tale of unions “gone wrong”. The UAW has, as of the end of 2013, some 391,415 workers in it. Although when Michigan becomes a “right-to-work” state, the union membership at union shops will be optional and thus as soon as it becomes optional there will be a huge exit from the UAW, and for good reason. Indeed the UAW expects a drop in membership when the full impact of Michigan's “Right-to-work” laws occurs by calling for a dues increase of 25%, with the official excuse being that they need to build up the strike fund. Ironically, the UAW strike fund has been plundered down from $1 billion in 2001 down to $600 million without a major strike action being taken in that entire subsequent period.

When a modern asset strippers union, like the UAW, can't prevent a strike from breaking out it will seek to force the workers into a bad settlement. The unions are so useful to the bosses that as long as the union is allowed to control the retirement fund they don't even need an expanding membership. The real concern for those leading the unions at the local level is that this will destroy their unions, that their members will leave them en masse. The unions aren't just “in decline”, they are dying. These concerns were voiced repeatedly at the recent UAW convention from their local affiliates. Truly it is the capitalists who should be paying dues to the unions because that is who the unions serve today.

One only need look at any auto manufacturing town in the US to see what has happened. Capitalists no longer have a particular interest in getting directly involved with the production process. An organization that sheds its productive capacity has less of a chance to compete, despite any temporary rise in corporate profits or share prices. Thus what is good for shareholders represents a decrease in market share. The competitive advantage of lowering labor costs can only be temporary as a competitors meet the Big Three's cuts with cuts of their own. Since the 1970s the US auto-manufacturers have reinvested less and less into their factories, choking off investment in constant capital while competitors in Germany and Japan were increasing investments in their productive capacity. The Big Three are on their way to becoming the Big Two, or the Big None.

The capitalists know they don't need a workplace organization of the same sort as unions once were. They also know that the workforce is so atomized and divided against each other that there will be no serious resistance while the unions remain able to stifle strikes. If push comes to shove, the auto industry executives can simply have union officials to tell workers to go back to work and forcing them to accept any contract that is offered to them no matter how bad it is.

Some would have us keep trying to “reform” the unions. Some would say that although the unions are run by corrupt officialdom, they still represent “mass-organizations” of the working class and thus revolutionaries are supposedly obliged to work within them. The problem with this is that unions are no longer mass organizations. The working class at present has no mass organization of any kind. The present period calls for the unification of the vanguard elements of the class, for without a vanguard there will be no mass organization of the class.

Revolutionaries today must encourage all attempts to organize workers outside and apart from the unions. The unions rely on leftists to do their footwork, to lend legitimacy to an institution that has lost all legitimacy. Without the reformist and bourgeois left doing the work in the unions that they do, many unions would cease to function. While the absence of organization doesn't represent anything positive for workers, breaking out of the collapsing orbit of unionism is a necessary first step. As long as the objective of organization remains confined to bargaining with the capitalists the end result will always be the same. Workers can only truly advance their interests if they proceed with the aim of putting forward political demands, to turn the struggle in to a social struggle. The example of recent struggles of auto workers for FIAT in Turkey is an example that American workers would do well to pay attention to.


7 August 2015

[1] Auto Struggles in Turkey: we don't want any unions, we have set up workers councils.


Monday, August 10, 2015


I suppose it's difficult for the working class to accept that the Unions now function only in the interests of the class enemy. This leaves us workers with nobody on our side. But we've never really had anybody on our side. After all, even in their heyday, the Unions only negotiated the cost of labour power. They never actually wanted to liberate it, or see it liberate itself from capitalism, or free itself from wage labour and of course from the Unions themselves. Negotiating and controlling and today even minimising the cost of wage labour ie. our wages, is all that's left for the Unions to do. We don't need them anymore.

So the sooner we all understand this the better. The sooner we realise we no longer need the Unions and that we are totally and absolutely capable of organising both ourselves and society, and doing away with wage labour altogether the better it'll be for our future, and the future of the rest of humanity.Appearances now, when we look in a mirror and see our pathetic reflection as the downtrodden underfed detritus of capitalist society, may not at first seem encouraging; but it's what goes on in our hearts and minds, and particularly our consciousness of ourselves as the revolutionary class, which is decisive for the future.

For it is us alone that can free up the rest of suffering humanity from the imprisonment of capital, and from the redundancy it enforces on non-workers and the unemployed. Only the working class, through it's class consciousness, can bring abut the beginnings of a real freedom-to-live for all humanity and release us all into the joy of working together for the good of everyone.

It sounds like pie in the sky and free beer tomorrow. And some readers will wonder. But it's the choice facing us all and everyone if they did but know it, now and today! Either we wake up to our essential vocation as the revolutionary working class, or the planet is doomed and humanity along with it.

So comrades wake up before it's too late.

The article as written does attempt to point the way forwards. If workers at FIAT in Turkey can move beyond the unions, workers in the US can too. It is happening in places around the world, and it has been done before. It can be done again. If there is one thing a revolutionary can do it is to show workers they have far more potential than they themselves realize. The very fact that we are able to speak of the experiences of workers in contemporary struggles, like in Spain and Turkey, is a positive thing. I remember times not so long ago when things weren't like that at all.

Nice post Pantaloons. Yes: workers have far more potential than they themselves realise. Is this what revolutionaries show them? In fact workers have the potential to change the world for the better. And oh boy! Does it need changing!

Good read.

$11 an hour seems ridiculous when many fast food workers in the US have succeeded in their fight for $15 an hour. Airport workers in NY have also won $15.

I think the article highlights many issues with the conception of capitalism's decline/decadence which many left communists currently hold today.

To echo many others who have already written on this issue, the US since at least the 1990's has been experiencing a second industrialization of the manufacturing industry in the Southern States. Historically the Southern States were known for the textile industry. Huge factories with whole neighborhoods of "kit" homes built to house the two to three thousand plus workers at a plant.

Auto parts manufacturing facilities were also historically large work places, holding thousands, but based in the North and Northwest. In modern times after the loss of the textile industry, smaller and more efficient auto-making facilities have popped up all around the South from SC to east Texas. Without falter these facilities are placed in towns with no history of significant social or class struggle. Very small towns in general. Another distinguishing feature from the 20th century style factories is the types of parts being produced.

Anyways, with similar economic upturns happening in China, Taiwan, South Korea and other places since at least the 1990's, I don't think we can definitively say the whole world is at a class standstill or totally immersed in decline or decomposition. After the globalization of capital, without any physical markets to expand to, much of the "first world" (or "central states" as some call them) experienced a large economic downturn, and then an upturn of certain industries which coincides with the economic rise of Asia. Unlike the massive wars and depressions of the first half of the 20th century, when crisis hits nowadays it seems to do so in a “see-sawing” manner–up,down,up,down–but with varying national economies experiencing declines at incongruous points.

How this all affects a given struggle is hard to decide, but there seems to be opportunities for US autoworkers to link with workers in other sectors to begin struggling. I’m not sure how the idea of fighting for wage increases fits into certain diagnoses of the period, but the opportunity is there. In many places in the US South and other “right-to-work” states the unions won’t matter because they’re non-existent. People who were in the unions in the past or in other states many times will be critical of them.

So, according to the Detroit Free Press, they voted to authorize a strike vote and it was almost unanimous on the part of the membership. The strike authorization vote works to force workers into a "cooling off" period, before you can vote to strike. This gives the company and the union time to react to the threat and head it off.

Labor costs were never actually as high as $78 per hour that is just the company estimate.