Labor Advocate Online

Big Three Get Big Deal
What Makes UAW Agreements ‘Historic’
by Bill Onasch

Part Two

Click here for Part One

We left off at the end of Part One of this article with the question, “What, if anything, can be done to survive and recover?” from the historic defeat for American workers inflicted by the UAW-Big Three agreements. Before going any further we should deal with another question–was this outcome inevitable? Did the UAW leadership have no other viable options? If the answer is yes then further discussion is as futile as resisting assimilation by the Borg.

I am not insensitive to the challenges facing any union bargaining team. I’ve been involved in negotiations with some tough customers such as Litton Industries (now part of Northrop-Grumman) and Laidlaw (now part of First Group PLC). The pressures and frustrations can be immense. Even when you think you’ve got the best that can be obtained there will be many members who will be justifiably disappointed.

Collective bargaining with individual employers is largely shaped by the current overall relationship of forces in the struggle between contending class interests--limiting the options of those sitting around the table. With all the outsourcing and offshoring of globalization, a health care crisis that is getting steadily worse, perhaps the most reactionary administration in history in Washington, threats from bankruptcy courts, etc, there is no doubt the bargaining climate today is the worst for unions in living memory. No realistic worker would have expected the UAW to come out of these negotiations with big new gains.

But was it necessary to agree that new workers be paid less than those at the nonunionized competition, in fact less than the average industrial worker wage? Were there no options to phasing out defined benefit pensions and full health care coverage for retirees?

Blind fate did not lead us in to our present predicament While union-employer bargaining is subject to the relationship of forces they at the same time are a major factor contributing to this balance. It is very much an ongoing, dynamic process. Past settlements by the UAW, covering at one time hundreds of thousands of workers, played a big role in getting the labor movement where we are today.

The Logic Of 'Partnership'
These recent deals were “inevitable” only because of the “partnership” approach which has been embraced in its present subservient form by the UAW bureaucracy for the last thirty years. Once Solidarity House accepted the argument by the Big Three bosses that they were in a fight for their lives together everything was up for grabs. They have not flinched as hundreds of thousands of UAW jobs disappeared in the process of becoming “competitive.” They are claiming victory even now as most young workers would probably be better off going to work at nonunion Toyota than hiring on at a Big Three plant.

(Since I posted Part One Sam Gindin, a long time economist and strategist with the UAW, and later CAW in Canada, published an excellent analysis of the Big Three settlements, well worth a read.)

Adversarial Has the Edge
But such class collaboration was not the only option. In Part One we reviewed some of the early class struggle heritage of the UAW. Even today there are successful examples of adversarial unionism at least holding their own–for example the UE/IUE at General Electric earlier this year. In a few industries, such as health care, unions such as the California Nurses Association have even made some impressive gains in both organizing and improved contracts.

Admittedly, adversarial unionism cannot completely defy the prevailing relationship of forces either. The UE’s national contract with GE represents a tiny fraction of the number covered thirty years ago, decimated by the company’s global restructuring. There are no more national contracts with Westinghouse or RCA as they exist today only as trademarks sold to others, gone for good from American manufacturing. My old amalgamated UE Local in Minneapolis, that represented the Litton workers, survives today with less than a tenth of the membership numbers in the Seventies. In terms of job security adversarial unions haven’t done much better than the UAW.

But, neither have they done any worse and they have done a superior job in preserving wages, benefits, working conditions--not to mention pride. There is nothing more demoralizing than giving up without a fight–except maybe calling surrender a victory.

Smoldering Embers In UAW
The flame of adversarial unionism was never completely extinguished within the UAW either. There have always been pockets of militancy on the local level here and there. UAW dissidents were prominent in the launching of the popular and informative monthly Labor Notes in 1979.

Jerry Tucker

The UAW leadership’s promotion of concessions began to lead to cracks even within the Administration Caucus in the Eighties. Jerry Tucker, an assistant regional director based in St Louis, defied the caucus by running against the incumbent director. He was supported by an anti-concessions group calling themselves New Directions. Tucker was narrowly defeated but the results were overturned because of voting irregularities and he won a special election with 52 percent of the vote. New Directions was expanded beyond region 5 throughout the union. They were soon supported by Victor Reuther, brother of the long time UAW president, and a leader in his own right, by then retired. Tucker and Reuther received a lot of attention in the media with prominent coverage in the New York Times and an appearance on the Today Show.

The Reuther brothers--Roy, Victor, Walter in 1937

Like all one party regimes everywhere the Administration Caucus could not tolerate dissent–not even just one lone oppositionist out of 22 International Executive Board members. The leaders at Solidarity House showed uncharacteristic zeal in mobilizing a counter-attack against apostates. One of the most bizarre incidents I have witnessed at a labor movement gathering took place at a Detroit conference organized by Labor Notes in 1989. Three bus loads of well dressed UAW staffers arrived to picket the event and its keynote speaker–Victor Reuther. But they also did a lot more than that as the ruling machine cajoled and threatened on their way to defeating Tucker for reelection

While the ruling party has kept dissenters out of the top echelons of national leadership since Tucker opposition has manifested itself on several levels. Over the years local leaders such as Pete Kelly, the late Dave Yettaw, and Wendy Thompson rose well above the mere nuisance level in their battles against partnership. Newsletters with colorful names, such as Gregg Shotwell’s Live Bait & Ammo, and the late Caroline Lund’s The Barking Dog, went beyond local issues finding a national following. More recently networks of anti-concession activists have coalesced around web sites such as Future of the Union, and Soldiers of Solidarity.

The 'Factory Rats' Roar
The current UAW oppositionists have had some modest impact. Their actions forced the union leadership and GM to come up with more than they wanted to clear the way for the huge loss of jobs, wages, and benefits at “bankrupt” Delphi. The dissenters came within a hair of defeating the 2005 health care cost give backs to Ford and spooked Solidarity House so much plans were abandoned to put the same deal up for a vote at Chrysler.

These actions led to Gettelfinger’s elaborate bargaining pageantry, with two token strikes. But the dissidents could not be ignored. In fact, for the first time in decades, the mass media gave some serious attention to the opposition. When two other former IEB members joined Jerry Tucker in signing an open letter to the UAW leadership, urging them to reject VEBA and instead launch a serious campaign for single-payer health care, excerpts were reprinted widely in the press. When Bill Parker, a long time associate of the Labor Notes current and chair of the local union officers negotiating committee at Chrysler, opposed the tentative agreement presented by Gettelfinger, it was big news. While the bosses and bureaucrats held their breath the media closely followed the ratification vote at Chrysler locals. All major locals outside Detroit voted to reject but heavy handed pressure secured enough votes in the Detroit area to assure ratification.

This loose association of oppositionists can be a starting point for a rescue and recovery operation in the ongoing disaster in the UAW. Along with kindred souls in other unions, they often describe themselves as “trouble makers.” Certainly there is a role for making trouble for the bosses and they have been good at it. But just being annoying is not enough. Delaying actions are good but far from sufficient.

The mid-contract give-backs of billions toward health care costs at GM and Ford two years ago should have been a clear signal to all that we had reached a new stage in struggle, that business as usual was not going to cut it. In an article at the time I wrote,

“In the context of class war this capitulation was not a fierce battle lost–it is more akin to when the French government declared Paris an open city before the arrival of Hitler’s armies. While our former general staff works to create a Vichy of their own those of us who want to continue to fight need to regroup as partisans.

“There are many potential partisans within the ranks, and even in leadership posts here and there, in the labor movement. It is time for us to start getting together, to discuss, to organize, to prepare for future action.”

I looked forward at that time to the Labor Notes Conference, held in May, 2006, as a venue that could refocus discussion of strategy on new fronts in advance of the Big Three and other critical negotiations. That didn’t happen. There were, as always, interesting presentations and workshops. But they were the same kinds of presentations and workshops that had taken place at all previous biannual gatherings of the troublemaker tribe. The preoccupation with in-plant strategies, and internal union democracy, was strictly business as usual.

I, of course, don’t dismiss shop floor fights, and asserting democratic rights in unions. These are on going, vital activities. But, they are today rear guard, defensive battles and any gains won will be fleeting. If organized labor is to have any future in this country we have to reverse the oppressive relationship of class forces.

I think there are many similarities between our labor crisis and the global warming crisis. For decades a few scientists and environmentalists warned of the growing dangers of greenhouse gasses–without generating much excitement. Now that the unwelcome effects of climate change are becoming palpable many are trying to do something–drive hybrids, buy organic foods, curbside recycling, switch over to CFL bulbs.

This is all well and good. It can make a measurable difference. We should all do what we can as individuals, and communities. But such relatively painless life style changes are not going to halt and reverse the poisoning of our atmosphere that poses imminent threats to human civilization. That will require a mass social and political movement, on a global scale, to make enormous, very fundamental changes in our economy as well.

So far the fights against declining living standards and working conditions of the American working class have not yet gone much beyond the equivalent of the curbside recyclers in our admittedly imperfect analogy. While we applaud and support their efforts we still require a mass social and political movement against the whole corporate agenda up and down the line.

This, of course, is not a startling new idea. There was in fact a time when unions had a broader social outlook and often forged alliances with the unemployed, veterans and family farmers. A Philip Randolph, of the sleeping car porters, was for decades the most prominent advocate for Black equality. In a couple of states–New York and Minnesota–there were even labor parties that enjoyed some electoral success.

As we have already noted, part of the Big Labor consolidation during the Cold War was finalizing abandonment of this broader perspective. They returned to the craft union values of the Sam Gompers era. Politics was once again reduced to rewarding friends and punishing enemies within the two Establishment parties on a case-by-case basis. Generally this meant support for the Democrats but not always. PATCO was not the only union to endorse Ronald Reagan in 1980.

This rejection of labor playing any kind of independent role in shaping society is unique to the USA. In every other industrialized country there is at least one mass working class party. The most contentious issues in American collective bargaining today aren’t even on the table during negotiations in most countries–they are addressed by law, covering everyone. Here the bosses write the laws, enforce the laws, and even dictate the terms of public debate--with no effective response from organized labor.

What Our Unions Can and Can't Do
The most competently led adversarial unions, operating democratically and making trouble on the shop floor, cannot resolve the challenges of globalization, cannot overcome repressive labor and bankruptcy laws, cannot provide universal quality health care at an affordable cost, and cannot guarantee job security. The best unions around cannot prevent their members being evicted in the mortgage crisis. Model unions cannot fully protect the interests of immigrant members lacking the right papers. Militant unions cannot stop the war in Iraq. And exemplary unionism will be unable to ensure a just transition to the greener economy so desperately needed to tackle global warming–an issue of particular importance for auto workers.

But what our unions can do is take the lead in building social and political movements to speak to the needs of the working class–including the big majority presently outside organized labor. If we don’t take the initiative who will?

Our unions have become smaller, weaker. But they are still the only class-based mass organizations we have in this country. They have some resources. In the 2004 election cycle unions collectively spent 400 million dollars on “friends.” They are on track for spending a similar amount this time around. When they are motivated, unions are capable of mobilizing tens, sometimes hundreds of thousands of members and their families in action on short notice.

Despite these formidable, sought after resources, the political influence of the union leadership is close to nil. The only piece of labor’s legislative agenda actually enacted in to law by the Democrat congress was a modest raise in the minimum wage–and that was obtained only by granting more tax breaks to business to pay for it. Many of labor’s new “friends” in the House contributed the votes needed to pass the NAFTA inspired Peru trade deal.

The mainstream union bureaucracy is faithfully wedded not only to partnership with the boss in the workplace but also partnership with the bosses parties in the political arena. We can hardly expect them to boldly champion new social and political causes that would shake up what little stability remains in their domain.

I believe it is the job of those of us who know better to expose this phony partnership on both levels, to reaffirm the struggle not just with our own boss but between the employer and working classes, and to begin to assemble both the ideas and human fighters needed to offer a realistic alternative vision of a way out of the crisis we face.

We begin work with not what we wish but what is available. We can build US Labor Against the War, work to involve our unions more in civil rights and immigrant rights struggles, explore alliances with the environmental movement, and attempt to rejuvenate the Labor Party.

And we need to convince those trouble makers in the UAW and other unions to take in this bigger picture as well. There is another Labor Notes Conference coming up in April. Frankly, I was initially debating about whether or not to attend. But I am encouraged by one of the promotions for the conference on their web site,

“Labor must be in the forefront of the broad social movement we need to win single-payer health care reform. For unions, it is the only solution to the escalating employer demands for health care takeaways and cost shifting, and the best way to fight outsourcing of jobs to other countries. The California Nurses Association/National Nurses Organizing Committee is a longtime critic of corporate, insurance-based medical care and incremental reforms. We look forward to working with other labor activists at the Labor Notes Conference on this fundamental campaign.”

Rose Ann DeMoro

This is a quote from Rose Ann DeMoro, Executive Director, California Nurses Association. CNA is probably the most successful of today’s adversarial unions, and is supportive of US Labor Against the War, and the Labor Party, as well as the single-payer movement. Hopefully, this inclusion in the conference program indicates more openness to an expanded perspective than has been shown in the past. I plan to attend the conference and urge others to do the same.

It would be easy to become depressed about our future--especially in light of the historic surrender of the UAW. There are two things that keep me going in these troubling times.

First, I know from our history that our fortunes can change unexpectedly and swiftly.

Secondly, despite all obstacles workers, given half a chance to do so, are still ready to put up a fight. As this is written thousands of screen and television writers are locked in determined struggle with the studios.

Our side still has a fighting chance. Let’s make the best of it.

December 3, 2007

About the Author
The webmaster of the website is a paid-up member of UAW Local 1981—the National Writers Union. During the 70-80s, while employed at Litton Microwave’s Minneapolis operations, he was elected to various positions in UE Local 1139, including Shop Chairman and Local President. In 1980 he took a union leave from the plant to work on a successful UE organizing drive at a Litton runaway plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. When Litton began shutting down its four Minneapolis plants Onasch was selected to be a worker representative in a Dislocated Worker Project administered by Minneapolis Community College—where he became a member of the Minnesota Education Association. Returning to his home town of Kansas City in 1989, he soon began a 14-year stint as a Metro bus driver. During that time he published a rank and file newsletter, Transit Truth, chaired a union Community Outreach Committee that organized public protests against cuts in transit service, helped organize a privatized spin-off at Johnson County Transit, and served a term as Vice-President of ATU Local 1287. He has also been involved in US Labor Against the War and the Labor Party since those organizations were launched and represents Midwest chapters on the Labor Party Interim National Council.

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