Labor Advocate Online

UAW Lives
by Bill Onasch

November 1, 2009

Since 1946, when Walter Reuther consolidated the one-party regime that still rules the UAW, rejection of a national Big Three agreement recommended by the bargaining committee has been as rare as steak tartare. But Ford workers have shot down what president Ron Gettelfinger called “a good deal for workers.”

This was no fluke or cliff hanger. The figures are truly astounding. Dearborn Truck in Local 600 voted no by 93 percent, edging out Local 249's earlier 92 percent trouncing at Claycomo (Kansas City Assembly). Gettelfinger’s home local in Louisville, where he made an in person appeal, shot down his “good deal” 84 percent.

The prevailing sentiment among the nay-sayers was that they had already given enough back to the company. The last Big Three master national agreements, negotiated two years ago, were transformational. They established the VEBAs to replace retiree health care, created a new sub-tier of wages and benefits for new hires, and much else.

Earlier this year the companies came back for more in an emergency re-opener and got elimination of the eight-hour day, cancellation of numerous bonuses, fewer holidays, reduction of Supplemental Unemployment Benefits, shorter breaks, confiscation of what remained of an already much diverted Cost of Living Adjustment--among other things that, at Ford., was estimated to transfer 500 million dollars a year from UAW workers to corporate coffers.

But, of course, General Motors and Chrysler soon got more yet as the Obama administration, threatening to liquidate those bailed-out companies through bankruptcy, imposed new demands that further gutted jobs, working conditions, wages and benefits--and banned strikes for the next six years.

Ford avoided bail out and bankruptcy and has in fact made a 384 million dollar profit for the first half of 2009. This prevented them from calling on labor’s “friend” in the White House to shaft Ford workers as he had so ruthlessly done at GM and Chrysler. But both Ford management and UAW Solidarity House started talking about maintaining “pattern bargaining,” keeping Ford “competitive” with the other survivors of the now grossly mis-named Big Three.

After months of secretive negotiations Gettelfinger summoned the Ford bargaining council to Detroit a few weeks ago and laid out his good deal. Ford offered new product lines in some plants, and a thousand dollar bonus to all. All they wanted in return was:

• Lifting the cap set in the 2007 contract on the allowable percentage of low tier workers--and freezing their 14 dollar an hour wage until 2015.

• Combining some skilled trades jobs.

• A ban on strikes to improve wages or benefits until 2015.

Most pundits thought ratification was a slam dunk. But they soon found that UAW workers had their limits after all. A retired UAW militant in Detroit wrote me,

“History is being made. Watch! We all know that a cornered rat -- a factory rat -- turns and fights. They are turned and fighting back at Ford. May it spread far and wide!”

The brother proved to be spot on. Here’s a sample of quotes from members of the Louisville local, cited in the Louisville Courier-Journal,

“They should have given us three ways to vote. Yes. No. And hell no.”

“What we give up, we will never get back....It feels like Ford is trying to bust the union.”

And on pattern bargaining,

“Who wants to pattern an agreement after a bankrupt company?”

The big loser in this vote is the monolithic bureaucracy atop the UAW which for decades has been dedicated to partnership with the boss. They are of little value to their “partners” if they can’t sell agreements, can’t keep their members in line. (Of course, their value to the ranks is close to zero as well.)

While the UAW ranks have long been hammered, this is the first major defeat for the administration caucus bureaucracy. These are the folks who didn’t tolerate the presence of even one opposition member within their club, driving out Jerry Tucker who annoyed them so much during his brief presence on the International Executive Board in 1988. This is the same machine that sent bus loads of staffers to picket the Labor Notes Conference in 1989 because of the presence of Tucker and Victor Reuther–who they considered an apostate for criticizing their concessions to Big Three “partners.” These one-time enforcers of obedience are rapidly becoming the Rodney Dangerfields of the labor movement.

We celebrate the Ford UAW worker’s victory. Saying “No” to give-backs is an essential first step in defending ourselves against the boss attacks. But more than passive, negative stances are necessary. Even sticking it to the present bureaucrats is insufficient.

Look at the example of the Canadian Auto Workers. The CAW split from the UAW over disagreements with the regime’s give-back program and high-handed administration. The CAW quickly developed a reputation as a militant alternative to the business unionism that marks most U.S. unions.

But the CAW remained a top down bureaucracy with merely different rhetoric than the UAW. They too went down the partnership road. One of Buzz Hargrove’s final achievements before retiring as CAW president was negotiating an Andy Stern-like deal with Magna–a global auto parts maker now in the process of acquiring Opel from General Motors. When the Great Recession struck north of the border as well, both the government in Ottawa and the CAW bureaucracy mirrored what Obama and Gettelfinger were doing State side.

Right now CAW Ford workers are being asked to ratify a new deal that makes concessions on benefits, time off and wages–and accepts the closing of an assembly plant in St. Thomas, Ontario. In return, Ford agreed to maintain at least ten percent of its North American production in CAW plants. (Right now seventeen percent of North American Ford output is in Canada.)

Perhaps the CAW Ford workers will be inspired by their sisters and brothers in the UAW and decide this is their basta moment.

In any case, the historic rejection of Gettelfinger’s sweetheart deal reaffirms that while the mainstream officialdom of American labor are indeed moribund the unions remain very much alive.

We will have more comments soon.

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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