GM, Unions and Bosses Face Workers Resistance

Image - Workers demonstrate outside UAW headquarters against the union

The Fight against United Autoworkers (UAW ) and General Motors (GM)

On October 16 workers from GM's Lake Orion assembly plant, from UAW Local 5960, started a picket at the United Auto Workers headquarters, “Solidarity House”. They were joined by workers from plants in Mansfield, Ohio, and in Indianapolis, where workers of UAW Local 23 voted down a UAW contract. The UAW in lockstep with the demands of the US government and the auto executives had agreed to a two-tier wage contract where new hires, and those with less than eleven years seniority, start at $14.00 per hour. The first tier employees, those with over eleven years seniority earning $28.00 per hour will be given the option of transferring to another plant, early retirement, or take a severance payoff. The UAW pushed the vote through without informing the members adequately of the contents of the contract which includes a binding arbitration agreement and five year no strike pledge. With GM earnings for the first half of the year at $2.2 billion dollars, 30,000 layoffs, a dozen plant closings and wages cut in half, the “New GM” has been stripped down until it looks good on paper. GM has benefitted by a massive sale of its stock as a result.

UAW - A Perfect Modern Union

The UAW is a perfect example of what purpose unions have been bent to in our glorious capitalist society. An institution that has ended up with huge stakes in GM and Chrysler, that handles enormous sums of capital in the form of employee pension funds. It is a conduit for labor discipline, no-strike deals, concession contracts and votes for the ruling faction Democrats.

The UAW has made the transit from the role of management facilitator to becoming management itself, becoming company executives in their own right. The US Labor Department has given a waiver to the UAW so that they might own 18% of GM stock. With GM's recent initial public offering of stock at $33 per share, raising some $20.1 billion dollars. The funds raised from the sale of GM stock will primarily go to the US government which expects to recoup the $40 billion left from the $49.5 billion dollar bailout of the industry over the next two years. This massive “socialization” of losses gives the US government the latitude to restructure the entire industry across the board, something which would be impossible without this element of direct state intervention. The capitalist class itself needs the state to act in this capacity. At the present the UAW makes more money off of stock than from the union dues of its members so the attrition in their ranks obviously isn't too much of a problem for UAW leaders.

UAW President Bob King makes approximately $153,248 a year while the Vice-President Joe Ashton netted $164,000 in 2009. These same union leaders all see the pressing need for labor to be flexible in order to “save jobs” when in fact what is happening is the asset stripping of an industry where no job will be saved. This year the new head of the UAW, Bob King, deployed Jesse Jackson to march against the closing of the New United Motor Manufacturing Inc., (NUMMI) plant in Fremont, California. This media stunt was meant to counter their prior sellout of workers at New United Motor Manufacturing (NUMMI) plant, which also met with vocal resistance. The nationalist posturing in the “defense of American jobs” can't cover up growing hostility to the role played by UAW leaders in creating an all “tier II” labor force.

Employers are pressed to reduce labor costs because during a crisis that is one of the few things they know how to do. They then say that the cuts are necessary to stay competitive. However as auto manufacturers around the world are doing the same thing, wage cuts are not about to help them out-produce their competitors but will serve to justify more layoffs, plant closings and wage cuts. It looks good on Wall Street simply because the attrition of the company has given GM a temporary shot of liquidity, made fertile with government bailout dollars. Wage cuts, technological advances in production, capital investment and outright fraud only work so far in restoring a sagging rate of profit accumulation. This rebranded “New GM” is smaller, with less productive capacity, with a lower quality of workmanship and will require more cuts and the process will continue until the entire industry is shut down, packed up and sold off. Capitalism is indeed efficient.

It is a hard lesson for many to learn that the unions have a symbiotic relationship with the bourgeoisie whom they negotiate concessions with. Rank and file committees against the policies of UAW leaderships aren't new, but the current situation is new. The past situation of capitalist stability allowed such movements to arise and be absorbed with great regularity in the unions. The leaderships of the auto unions, with a vested organizational stake in the industry, do not have the latitude to even posture in a convincing way. The response in the defense of workers interests, it is shown, must come from the outside and against the institutions of labor force management, from outside the unions.

Since the 1940s the UAW has been run as an “Administrative Caucus” first led by Walter Reuther. The aim of the UAW leaderships since has been almost exclusively to discipline their labor force. Examples where UAW administration thugs were sent out to break the wildcat strikes are numerous, at Chrysler's Eldon Axle Plant in 1970, or in the wildcat strike at Chrysler's Mack Avenue Stamping Plant in 1973, or during the GM Fleetwood Strike in 1976. The UAW had a consistent pattern of the use of force to intimidate all wildcats while using union elections as a means of forcing workers to keep voting until the leadership was able to achieve a result satisfactory to their understanding of the need to make “sacrifices” by their members. The “New Directions” reform candidate Jerry Tucker ran for the presidency of the UAW in 1992 against the seated president of the union, Owen Bieber. UAW members were told quite openly that if they voted for the union reform candidate that their ”plant will close”. Decades of militancy among workers were not able to unseat or alter the trajectory of an institution which once may have been intended to be a shield for workers, is today a sword for the capitalists.

The nature of capitalism and unions today laid bare

The attrition of jobs and working conditions of the last three decades was actively policed by the union, run by an administrative bourgeoisie. In negotiating the concessions contracts and coming up with agreements in order to “save jobs”, or agreeing to job cuts in exchange for wage increases, the union plays an active role in negotiating down the cost of labor during times of generalized industrial atrophy. The renegotiating of the cost of labor when it takes place in key industries then becomes the pattern for the sacrifices for which other employers will inevitably start asking. This entire process has been shaped by and driven by a crisis inherent to capitalism whose main identifying feature is a crisis of falling rates of profit accumulation. The leaders of the unions have gained control of significant capital in the auto manufacturers themselves, as well as control of autoworkers pensions. The attrition of their own membership is not a problem for those who actively benefit from reducing this pesky all-too-variable human capital. From 1979 to 2010 the UAW has lost over three-quarters of its membership, which was once 1,528,000 now stands at 355,000 and falling. If every UAW worker died in their sleep one night, the leaders would still control the VEBA (Voluntary Employees' Beneficiary Associations - the pensions) trust funds, they would still own stock which would only go up the next day when Wall Street heard the news that labor costs had been permanently reduced. This is in essence the nature of capitalism and unions today laid bare.

In 2009 UAW workers at Ford voted down a contract, the first such instance in the contemporary history of the union. If these UAW workers who linked together to vote down a UAW contract for the first time, were to break out of the boundaries of their workplaces and form assemblies with other autoworkers, linking their struggles together even with workers outside the industry and across national frontiers they might then defend themselves against this attack from a position of greater strength. The choices faced by these autoworkers are stark, but there is no lack of anger or willingness to fight back among workers. Indeed the US in its current state is ripe for a social explosion.