Discussion On the Future Of the American Labor Movement

The UAW Convention

Part One—Selective Memory and a Cold Forge
by Bill Onasch

“Honoring Our Past—Forging Our Future” was the theme of the 34th Constitutional Convention of the International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America (UAW). Part of the past of this union, founded in 1935, does indeed deserve honor.

The UAW was on the cutting edge of the great CIO upsurge that organized much of America’s mass production industries from 1936-46. CIO success during times of mass unemployment, and later war, was only possible because it was viewed by the working class as a whole as a broad social movement as well as a fight for traditional trade union wage and workplace objectives. It appealed to sentiments of broad class solidarity in struggle against ruthless bosses who had made a mess of society. It was led on the ground mainly by militants engaged in both tenacious, and often innovative struggles at the point of production and in the community. Many of them were cadres in social democratic, Stalinist, or Trotskyist political formations—much bigger then than their successors today.

 
Union workers and sympathizers march toward a rally in Detroit's Cadillac Square in early 1937. The fledgling United Auto Workers were striking General Motors plants in Flint and other locations, and were encouraged when the Detroit rally drew 150,000 supporters. (Photo and caption from the Detroit News.)

During these formative years, the UAW carried out legendary sit-down strikes, at times mobilized mass confrontations with cops and national guard forces assigned to help the boss, took on the race and gender prejudices that too often prevent unity in action—and had a lively internal democracy that allowed vigorous debate and hotly contested elections of officers.

But this union was not immune to the corrupting influence of a rejuvenated postwar capitalism, boldly proclaiming the dawn of an “American Century.” A combination of improved living standards, new repressive labor law, and the witch-hunt that came to be known as “McCarthyism,” facilitated an institutionalized bureaucracy that became entrenched in all but a handful of CIO unions during the Cold War period.

The caucus led by the ex-socialist
Reuther brothers secured supreme control of the UAW and by 1948 had either purged or coopted the radicals and militants slow to get with the new program replacing class struggle with class collaboration. The lineal descendants of this caste continue to run the show today. The convention is a tightly scripted staged spectacular with the outcome of all votes known well in advance.

While today’s one party regime still basks in the glories of the Flint Sit-Downs and the Battle of the Overpass, they also attempt to rewrite the class struggle part of the union’s heritage out of their official history. The “About Us” page on the UAW web site tells us “Since its founding in 1935, the UAW has consistently developed innovative partnerships with employers.” Like those who have been rewarded with the perks of being a convention delegate, history is also expected to conform to today’s needs of the administration caucus.

No Ignoring the Crisis
Like all unions with declining memberships, the UAW has become somewhat diversified over the years. They claim to have 3100 contracts with 2000 employers—“multinational corporations, small manufacturers and state and local governments to colleges and universities, hospitals and private non-profit organizations”—in the USA, Canada, and Puerto Rico. My membership in the National Writers Union puts me in UAW Local 1981.

But the heart of the union, its reason for being, is the auto industry. A combination of globalization, automation, spin-offs, and outsourcing has decimated UAW membership totals and bargaining power. Most of the former membership in Canada left the UAW twenty years ago to found the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW). (The CAW also diversified and is now the biggest private sector union in Canada.)

In terms of auto industry “density” the UAW peaked out in the early Fifties. The union’s zenith in total dues paying membership was reached in 1970, topping off at 1.6 million active workers. Last year that number sank to 557,000. There are more than a half-million retiree members.

Most media analysts—and UAW bureaucrats—focus on the declining market share of the historic Big Three auto makers, losing ground to “foreign” competitors, both through imports and production in “transplants” in the U.S.

Certainly this is an important factor—magnified by the UAW’s failure to organize a single one of the fourteen transplants now churning out a huge chunk of the domestic market. Toyota proudly emphasizes in TV commercials that their pickup trucks are built in Indiana. Hyundai advertising features their state of the art facility in Alabama.

But this market share view tends to paint the Big Three as almost victims, saddled with labor costs described by UAW president Ron Gettelfinger, in his opening remarks to convention delegates, as “unsustainable.” The total picture is more complex, including such factors as:

* One of the Big Three—DaimlerChrysler—is every bit as “foreign” as Toyota or Hyundai, and has nonunion plants in the USA as well as those under UAW contract.

* General Motors and Ford, always global players, have outsourced and offshored tens of thousands of jobs formerly done by UAW members. They also spent big bucks picking up “foreign” brands such as Saab, Volvo, and Jaguar, importing many of these products to compete in the domestic market.

* Automation—much of it produced by a division of GM—eliminated thousands of assembly plant jobs.

* Concessions on work rules and outsourcing to Big Three employers have also cost the union many jobs. DaimlerChrysler’s price to keep Jeep production in Toledo with a new plant was UAW agreement to use of independent suppliers–mostly nonunion– to run the factory's chassis line, body shop and paint shop with their own employees, outside UAW jurisdiction. DC also played hard ball over a new engine plant in Dundee. There the union had to agree to leaner, meaner “Japanese-style” teams as well as outsourcing of building maintenance work.

Adding to the perfect storm coming together last year were two sea change events— the U.S. bankruptcy of the Delphi spin-off, and the reopening of the current contract to give General Motors immediate and massive concessions on health care, affecting both active and retired UAW members. In the spirit of pattern bargaining, Ford was soon given the same health care deal—though it just squeaked by in a membership ratification vote. Maneuvering continues to pass it on to DC as well.

Delphi plans to shut all but eight of its remaining American plants, eliminating the big majority of UAW jobs with that parts maker. Already granted a two-tier wage structure in 2004 negotiations Delphi is asking a judge to abrogate even that concessionary agreement and to impose a new sub-tier rate in the $12 per hour range.

GM and Ford have announced firm plans to eliminate 60,000 more UAW jobs.

During the convention, delegates were stunned by news leaked to the press about startling new developments at Ford. While Ford is shutting down several U.S. assembly plants they have plans for two new ones.

One, to build the next generation “B” subcompact cars, will be in suburban Mexico City. Much, if not most, of its production will go to the increasingly fuel conscious U.S. market.

Ford has already held preliminary talks with the UAW about a second plant, to build the slightly bigger “C” platform cars somewhere in the southern United States. But this would be a plant with very different working conditions than those being shut, more in line with the Korean and Japanese transplants.

This is the setting for contract negotiations with the Big Three and remaining spin-offs next year.

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'A Fiery Speech’

That’s how many described Gettlefinger’s
‘State of the Union’ address. Even Mike Parker, a prominent dissident delegate from Chrysler Local 1700 in Sterling Heights, long associated with Labor Notes, told a Washington Post reporter, “The speech itself was excellent and certainly pointed to a lot of the problems facing the union.” But he went on to note “the convention is not addressing these problems.”

I would agree with brother Parker that the text of Gettelfinger’s speech was well crafted. Much of it could have been given by a militant socialist—and was probably written by folks who once were. But punches were pulled, history was revised, and clichés grated throughout this stirring bit of oratory.

Let’s examine some highlights from his remarks:

●“Things that once seemed rock solid — jobs we’ve done and done well, the retirement and health-care coverage we’ve earned, our right to a collective voice in our workplace — are threatened by many corporate CEOs, right-wing politicians and anti-union groups. They don’t think twice about the consequence of shifting jobs to Mexico, China, India and other low-wage nations. Or about what happens to real people and real communities when companies misuse the bankruptcy process to break promises to workers, retirees, customers, suppliers and stockholders.

“What’s at stake is more than our paychecks and benefits. What’s at stake is our shared vision of an America that lives up to its promise of freedom, opportunity, dignity and social and economic justice for all.”

He’s on the right track here. He goes on to name some of these enemies but conspicuous in absence are his would-be “partners”—General Motors, Ford, DaimlerChrysler, and his latest good friend, Caterpillar.

●“And let us make this point clear: Our fight has never been with workers in other countries and it isn’t today.

“Our fight is with those who want to give multinational corporations free rein to pit workers in the advanced industrialized nations against workers in the newly-industrialized countries in a brutal race to the bottom that none of us can ever win.”

A good summary of a vital principle. There were a number of international guests present at the conclave—though none identified from the CAW who deal with the UAW’s “partners.”.

●“The UAW has long made the case that health care is a national problem that demands a national solution. It’s not, as some people seem to believe, something that can be ‘fixed’ at the collective bargaining table.

“For decades now, the UAW has been a staunch advocate of single-payer national health insurance and we’re going to keep fighting to make affordable, quality health care a right for every American.”

Some historical clarification is required here. The UAW web site boasts that they won “the first employer-paid health insurance plan for industrial workers.” Actually, that’s a somewhat dubious claim but there’s no question that the UAW joined other mainstream union bureaucrats during the Cold War in rejecting a political fight for universal health care in favor of negotiating non-portable health and pension benefits tied to employers.

The chickens are certainly coming home to roost with a vengeance on this colossal strategic blunder. The commodity price of for-profit health care soars without restraint and has indeed become “unsustainable.” And, of course, those losing jobs lose their health care.

In the late 80s-early 90s the UAW and a few other major unions briefly mounted what appeared to be a promising campaign for “single-payer” health care, modeled on the Canadian system. But they soon became sucked in to Clinton’s inadequate and ill-fated health care “reform.”

Now, once again, Gettelfinger boldly calls for single-payer. But he made no mention of
actual legislation for single-payer, introduced by a Detroit congressman with long held ties to the UAW, John Conyers. Clearly this is another platitude expressed, not a call to battle around concrete objectives.

●“In January, we presented the UAW’s ‘Marshall Plan’ for the auto industry in a speech to the Automotive News World Congress.

“The plan would provide incentives for all automakers and parts suppliers to build flex-fuel and advanced technology vehicles, like hybrids and clean diesels, and their key components right here in the United States. This is a win-win. The government incentives would be returned through increased payroll taxes generated through job creation.

“Our plan can create tens of thousands of good jobs — the auto jobs of the future — and, at the same time, jump start the production and distribution of alternative fuels.”

Give him credit. At least he acknowledged there is an environmental crisis and that the auto industry had better figure out a way to survive this crisis that they have played such a huge role in creating. But this “Marshall Plan” cooked up at Solidarity House is pretty thin soup with little nourishment to offer either the environment or job preservation. A bolder vision for the future of the engine of American manufacturing is required. We’ll offer some suggestions in the second installment of this article.

Gettelfinger did a good job summarizing other problems that can’t be adequately addressed at the bargaining table: corporate bankruptcy scams, trade and investment deals, fiscal policies, and labor law. He even hinted that an “exit strategy” for Iraq might not be a bad idea.

Then he sums up the political picture:

●“We have a window of opportunity in this year’s elections to put America back on the high road. It will take all of us, working together, to gain back the House and Senate this November. We must grasp this election year with the determination that we can and will make a difference this fall.

“But let’s not kid ourselves. It’s going to take commitment, dedication and a lot of hard work.

“The right-wing, anti-worker forces that have controlled Washington for the past five and one-half years aren’t going to give up power without a fight.”

Gettelfinger reckons our troubles started with the present administration in the White House. His “take back” formulation clearly indicates he yearns for the congress controlled by Democrats prior to GOP ascendancy beginning with the 1994 midterm election. For all his shouting about good jobs going to Mexico and other low wage countries he seems to forget that it was that Democrat controlled congress, whipped in shape by the Clinton White House, that drove through the prime battering ram of Globalization—NAFTA

There is in fact a union-based political vanguard that has
a program that deals with all of the issues Gettelfinger highlighted—the Labor Party. Admittedly small, underfunded, still struggling to gain traction, it nevertheless is a logical starting point for building a working class political alternative. But it was not so much as mentioned by Gettelfinger. Instead, delegates were treated to remarks—via satellite—from the likes of Senator Barack Obama and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. We’ll come back to more discussion of political perspective in installment two.

Finances
The most sensitive indicator of crisis for the union bureaucracy is the financial report. Will there be enough money on hand to support their American Dream and to pass it on? Reduced membership levels and curtailed wage rates have produced a fiscal crisis leading to chilling contractions at Solidarity House and their regional structure. Gettelfinger regrettably told delegates, “The fact is that a union of 600,000 members can't operate the same way it did years ago as a union of more than a million members.” Staff has been cut by twenty percent, fourteen sub-regional offices have been closed, and conferences and staff travel have been curbed.

Fortunately, one part of their financial portfolio has performed well—the seldom used strike fund. At the end of last year it stood at 914 million dollars. Now that wouldn’t be all that much if a national strike against the Big Three—or even just one of them—is called when the contracts expire next year. But clearly nothing could be further from Gettelfinger’s partnership bargaining strategy. Delegates approved his proposal to divert fifty million to the general fund, for day-to-day administration, and an additional sixty million over a four year period for organizing.

Dissident Delegates
Judging by the Internet, there is a growing network of dissidents in the UAW, as well as among IUE locals at Delphi. There were dissident delegates at the Las Vegas gathering. They distributed leaflets and called an open caucus meeting. I’ll look at what they had to say, and where I think they fit in to the big picture, in the next installment.

June 18, 2006

Go to Part Two

Part Three

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