Sunday, October 13, 2019

UAW Strike: Interview With Former UAW President, Local 909 Frank Hammer

Facts For Working People shares this interview with former  President and Chairman of UAW Local 909 in Warren, Michigan, Frank Hammer. It is reprinted from The College Hill Independent.

Shifting Gears

The United Automobile Workers strikes General Motors

Illustration by Pia Mileaf-Patel
published October 11, 2019

On September 15, nearly 50,000 United Automobile Workers (UAW) union members formed picket lines outside of General Motors factories across the United States. Launched in response to problems negotiating their contract, it was the union’s first strike since 2007.

More than three weeks later, the UAW-GM strike continues. Over the course of negotiations, GM has cut off, and restored, healthcare coverage for striking employees. The company has lost an estimated $600 million, and 34 of its plants have temporarily shuttered.

To better understand the implications of the strike, the College Hill Independent spoke with retired labor organizer and social activist Frank Hammer. Over the course of his 32 years working at GM, Hammer held the positions of President and Chairman of UAW Local 909 in Warren, Michigan, as well as UAW-GM International Representative. He also co-founded Autoworker Caravan, an advocacy group linking current and retired autoworkers. Hammer discussed the automotive industry crisis of 2008-10, class consciousness in union organizing, and transnational labor solidarity.


It’s been 12 years since the UAW last voted to strike General Motors. Can you explain your demands this time around and why you’re striking?

The strike, of course, is the result of GM and the UAW not being able to come to terms on a new contract. The 2015 contract expired, and they did not reach agreement on new terms for the contract. That’s what prompted the strike. The UAW describes the issues in a very general way, in terms of what they’re actually bargaining for, but that includes things like job security, a means by which temporary workers can become permanent workers, the question of health care for the current workers, [...] the question of the future of the four US plants that were idled. Those are some of the issues. One of the strong issues has to do with the multiple-tier system that exists in all the GM locations, in terms of people doing similar work and getting different rates of pay and different benefits.

When did that multiple-tier pay system emerge?

In GM, it emerged in 2007. That’s when the two-tier system was first negotiated. It was actually before the Wall Street financial crisis, before the bankruptcy bailout in 2009—it was actually implemented a couple years before that. It was basically done on the argument that the UAW would either accept the two-tier structure in the plants, or GM would outsource the work to non-union locations, and the UAW would have to go out and organize unorganized workers where the work would have been sent. So the UAW preferred to keep workers in the plants, and they conceded to the two-tier system.

Can you talk about the Wall Street crash and other economic events of the last 12 years, and what effect they’ve had on the UAW?

My view on that question is different from what’s generally out there. The general view is that the US government under President Obama had rescued the auto industry and it survived and the companies thrived and so on. My view is actually that the auto companies were looking for such a financial crisis to actually implement cutbacks against the UAW agreements [...] and they used that as an opportunity, with the US government’s help, to really decimate the contractual rights that were previously won. For example, we lost the right to strike—the right to strike was suspended for half a dozen years. We lost overtime pay premium after eight hours. Contractually, they had to pay us time-and-a-half after eight hours, but now they only have to do what the law requires, which is after 40 hours, and things of that order. There were a lot of changes for the UAW.

There have been several rounds of contract negotiations in the past five years. Why is this one different? Why are you striking now?

I think one of the main reasons, if you were to ask rank-and-file workers, is that everybody understands that all the concessions that have been made in the UAW agreements, going back to 2007, have resulted in General Motors regaining profitability. Over the last three years, I think, they have made 35 billions dollars, and in the meantime, workers in the plants are in very onerous situations with this multi-tier structure and workers getting $15 dollars an hour or less. I think that people thought it was time to demand that the company share that surplus value that workers are generating, that more of it ought to go to the workers and not so much to the bankers and to the GM financiers of Wall Street.

You’ve been involved in activism for 50 years and you’ve had a lot of different roles in this union. You’re also a former General Motors employee. Could you talk about how you’ve seen labor organizing change over the years, through all the different positions you’ve occupied?

Back in the ’70s, when I hired in at GM, there were 450 or 500 thousand workers that, alone, just worked for GM. We were a massive force, as manufacturing workers in the Big Three. If you fast-forward to today, GM is now the smallest employer of UAW members [among car manufacturers] in the US, with around 46,000. We’ve been shaved to one-tenth of what we were, just as a force to be reckoned with. It’s happened through automation, it’s happened through the decline in market share, it’s happened through outsourcing. In many ways, we’re not the formidable force that we were in the ’70s. This has made for changes in terms of power, workers’ sense of their own power, and so on. That’s one change.

The other change that I’ve observed that is critical is the agenda of management and union partnership. Even though it was present, even in the ’70s, it really grew and became a thing, and actually took over the entire ideology of the union and the union leadership. So that had an impact as well, in terms of disarming the workers from seeing themselves as class-conscious fighters versus being a partner and helping GM become more competitive in the name of job security.

What exactly is management-union partnership?
The idea was that we shouldn’t be adversaries, that the conflicts were of no benefit to either party. That’s the theory of it, that we should instead work cooperatively, and that if the union looked after GM’s competitiveness, GM in turn would look after the workers’ benefits and job security and so on. That was the formula, and it was institutionalized in things that were called “joint activity centers.” They were institutionalized through a financing mechanism that was agreed to through the contractual agreements. It became an army of joint activity-appointed personnel and appointed workers, downtown in its own building, and then also in all the plants. So, a real structural change in the structure of the way the union operated within General Motors. It became this partnership at all levels, and you had all kinds of advocates of it who were appointed staff in order to carry it out.

How do you see union organizing now? What place do you think it has in progressive politics more generally? It’s something that’s been talked about a lot recently, because there have been high-profile strikes, with the teachers union and others. How do you see this strike fitting into that?

I think that this strike is quite significant, in the sense—and I am speaking partly from having been on some of the picket lines in Detroit—that there really is an outpouring of class feeling among autoworkers, and a sense of solidarity. For example, my plant is one of the four that are in the process of being closed, and there are only a handful of individuals working at my plant. So our picket lines are staffed by Ford workers and Chrysler workers. They’re doing it as an act of solidarity and this class feeling—that we’re all in this together, that Ford and Chrysler workers understand, “hey, we’re next,” that we’re all family. To me, it really represents a very interesting dynamic that you wouldn’t have seen without the strike. Now that it’s out there, now that people have had these feelings of solidarity, walking the picket lines with each other, supplying food and supplying water, all of those kinds of things, I think that it’s opened up a new avenue to see the manufacturing workers in the US in a different light. Most of what you’re talking about—the strikes, the organizing efforts—have been in the public sector or in the service sector. So I think this is a major break from that, and it portends, depending on where things go, that there’s going to be more organizing in the manufacturing sector than previously.

What’s the general sense of where you’re at with negotiations right now? Also, how can people who aren’t directly connected to the UAW support the strike or get involved?

The latest communication [from UAW leadership], which was over the weekend, established that negotiations aren’t going so well, that, in some ways, they went backwards. For example, GM earlier on—at the very beginning, before the strike began—said that they were offering to put some work in the Detroit location, and over in Lordstown, Ohio. Now, the word was that they’re withdrawing those offers. I think the way it’s being presented to the public is that negotiations are getting to a tenuous moment. It could be that these are public pronouncements to wear the strikers down to get them to be accepting of an agreement that’s not quite up to their standards, and that that might be the intention. But that’s speculation—we’ll see. There’s no doubt that General Motors is playing hardball, and that GM showed itself when, without notice and without warning, it cut off the healthcare of all striking workers, which it had to retreat on and reinstate it. I don’t know what the status is now. Clearly, GM is wanting to get its way. I think that workers understand that and will continue with the striking process.

In terms of how people can support, clearly the best way is—if you’re in a town or an area where there is a GM distribution center or a GM facility—coming out in support of the picket lines is the best way of engaging in support. I know that there are folks in non-GM locations that have talked about organizing informational tickets—for example, at auto dealers. I don’t know that that’s actually going on, but I know that, for people who want to lend some support and be visible about it, that’s one of the ways that people have spoken about doing it. In terms of contributions and donations, I know that the local unions can’t accept financial donations, but strikers can receive donations in kind. That’s probably one of the best ways to help the picketing workers, by keeping them supplied with foodstuffs, rain gear, any one of a number of ways that people can lend support to the strikers.

Is there anything else that you think is important to highlight about this movement?

One is that those of us who are activists within the ranks have really tried to promote an international approach to this struggle, because we understand that GM is an international corporation, and, as it is, we have workers around the world who are currently engaged in fights with General Motors, and that it would be incumbent upon us to close ranks and reach out to the workers. For example, there are strikers right now in South Korea who are striking over issues with GM. We have Mexican workers who work at a truck plant in Silao who were laid off as a result of parts shortages due to the strike. But I know that some of them were fired because of support for the GM strikers in the States. We have workers in Brazil, members of a union called Con Lutas, who are also engaged in the campaign against precarious work with GM in São Paulo. And we have workers in Colombia who are engaged in the fight with GM who are workers who sustain injuries in the workplace and are subsequently fired because of those injuries, and are cast out on the street without any compensation. They’re engaged in a battle with General Motors to get their jobs back, to get compensation. There are all these organized fights, it seems, for people who are strikers here in the US to reach out and become more unified across borders.

What steps do you think should be taken to create solidarity across national borders?

A couple of us are in Oshawa right now, and last night there was a wonderful solidarity rally by members of the Unifor Local 222 who themselves are confronted with the closure of their GM facility in Oshawa. Many workers turned out in solidarity with GM workers in the States. We had a great rally, a great gathering, and I think it’s energized the Canadian workers. I think more gatherings and more connections of that order are what we should be doing.

CATE TURNER B’21 doesn't know how to drive, but does know to stand with the union.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Working class music on the UAW/GM picket lines.

This is what we should have had at the old Labor Day Picnic the Central Labor Council organized every year. They had a brass band with no one under 60 held way out of town in one of the suburban communities. No offense to suburban communities but if we want to get the young involved we need to include them and also learn from them. This is good, wish I'd seen it earlier.

Capitalism – not so alone

by Michael Roberts

Branko Milanovic is the world’s leading expert on global inequality i.e the differences in income and wealth between countries and between individuals in different countries. He was a former chief economist at the World Bank.  After leaving the bank, Milanovic wrote a definitive study on global inequality which was updated in a later paper in 2013 and finally came out as a book in 2015, Global Inequality.  In his earlier papers and in that book, Milanovic presented his now famous ‘Elephant chart’ (shaped like an elephant) of the changes in household incomes since 1988 from the poorest to the richest globally.  Milanovic shows that the middle half of the global income distribution have gained 60-70% in real income since 1988 while those nearer the top group had gained nothing.

Milanovic found that those who have gained income the most in the last 20 years are the ones in the ‘global middle’.  These people are not capitalists.  These are mainly people in India and China, formerly peasants or rural workers have migrated to the cities to work in the sweat shops and factories of globalisation: their real incomes have jumped from a very low base, even if their conditions and rights have not.

The biggest losers are the very poorest (mainly African rural farmers) who have gained nothing in 20 years. The other losers appear to be some of the ‘better off’ globally.  But this is in a global context, remember. These ‘better off’ are in fact mainly working class people in the former ‘Communist’ countries of Eastern Europe whose living standards were slashed with the return of capitalism in the 1990s and the broad working class in the advanced capitalist economies whose real wages have mostly stagnated in the past 20 years.

However the UK think tank, the Resolution Foundation has taken Milanovic’s elephant graph to task.  Faster population growth in highly populated countries like China and India distorts his conclusion that middle income people in the globe made such strides. Controlling for the huge population rise in China and India shows that inequality between the average person in the imperialist economies of the West (North?) has increased, not decreased, compared to the poor economies of the global periphery (South?).  The elephant disappears.

In his 2015 book, Milanovic concludes that there is no longer any social or economic basis for class struggle of a socialist revolution.  So we must look for ways to make capitalism better and fairer. “Global inequality may be reduced by higher growth rates in poor countries and through migration.” Now in his new book, Capitalism Alone, Milanovic returns this theme and his ‘way out’.  Again he starts from the premise that capitalism is now a global system with its tentacles into every corner of the world driving out any other modes of production like slavery or feudalism or Asian despotism to the tiniest of margins.  But also capitalism is not just only mode of production, it is the only future for humanity.

So he says “Capitalism gets much wrong, but also much right—and it is not going anywhere. Our task is to improve it.”  Milanovic argues that capitalism has triumphed because it works. It delivers prosperity and gratifies human desires for autonomy. But it comes with a moral price, pushing us to treat material success as the ultimate goal. And it offers no guarantee of stability. In the West, ‘liberal capitalism’ creaks under the strains of inequality and capitalist excess. That model now fights for hearts and minds with what Milanovic calls “political capitalism”, as exemplified by China, which many claim is more efficient, but which is more vulnerable to corruption and, when growth is slow, social unrest.

Milanovic condemns inequality “I think it is bad for growth. It is bad for social stability, and it is bad for equality of chances, or equality of opportunity.”  And capitalism is bad because it inherently increases inequality.  “The system, the way it functions today, is generating — and, I’ll actually give it two examples — generating, really increasing, inequality. And that increasing inequality leads to the control of the political process by the rich. And, the control of the political process by the rich is really required for the rich to transfer, or transmit, rather, all these advantages. Be it through money — financial advantages – or, education, to their offspring. Which then reinforces the dominance of whatever is called the upper class.”  Yes, that sounds like capitalism.

So Milanovic favours increased spending on public goods and services (including education) and social insurance – and the introduction of taxes on rich’s property and wealth, in order to end inherited dynasties, so that you can only get rich by merit and hard work – as if you ever did!  So his answer to a better capitalism is the same as in his previous book, but this time with a degree of more optimism about achieving it: namely reducing inequality and expanding migration from poor to richer countries.

Although both capitalist ‘alternatives’ are riddled with corruption in their elites and state institutions, it is clear that Milanovic puts more faith in getting a return to the ‘liberal democratic’ model of Western (‘northern’) imperialism than he does for the ‘political capitalism’ of China.  But is Milanovic right to define the new cold war between Chinese and American capitalism as a contest between the liberal and the authoritarian, the meritocratic and the political?

Can we really accept this when we see Trump’s America; the callous and often brutal imperialist hegemony of the United States; and the corrupt money-bags ‘democracy’ that operates there, with its extreme and rising inequality. And can we really describe China, an authoritarian and corrupt state regime, as ‘political capitalism’?

As regular readers of this blog will know, I am not convinced that China is capitalist at all, given the overriding economic power of the state and its plan compared to the capitalist sector.  The lives of Chinese are much more decided by the state and state enterprises than through the vagaries and uncertainties of the market and the law of value.  As Milanovic says, China has grown in real GDP and average living standards in 70 years faster than any other economy in human history.  So is this really a demonstration of a successful capitalist economy (when all other capitalist economies only achieved less than a quarter of China’s growth rate and were subject to regular and recurring slumps in investment and production)?  Could not China’s different narrative be something to do with its 1949 revolution and the expropriation of its national capitalist class and the removal of foreign imperialism?  Perhaps capitalism is not alone after all.

So Milanovic’s dichotomy between ‘liberal democracy’ and ‘political capitalism’ seems false.  And it arises because, of course, Milanovic starts with his premise (unproven) that an alternative mode of production and social system, namely socialism, is ruled out forever.  In Global Inequality, Milanovic concluded that the idea of a united global proletariat making a worldwide revolution is out of the door because now the real inequalities are between Americans and Africans, not between capitalists and workers everywhere.  Trotsky’s international proletarian revolution is out of date: “This was the idea behind Trotsky’s “permanent revolution”. There were no national contradictions, just a worldwide class contradiction. But if the world’s actual situation is such that the greatest disparities are due to the income gaps between nations, then proletarian solidarity doesn’t make much sense.   Proletarian solidarity is then simply dead because there is no longer such a thing as global proletariat. This is why ours is a distinctly non-Marxian world.”

And yet the working class, both industrial workers and those in so-called ‘service’ industries, has never been larger in human history.  Globally, there were 2.2bn people at work and producing value back in 1991.  Now there are 3.2bn.  The global workforce has risen by 1bn in the last 20 years. Globally, the industrial workforce has risen by 46% since 1991 from 490m to 715m in 2012 and will reach well over 800m before the end of the decade.  Indeed, the industrial workforce has grown by 1.8% a year since 1991 and since 2004 by 2.7% a year, which is now a faster rate of growth than the services sector (2.6% a year)!  Globally, the share of industrial workers in the total workforce has risen slightly from 22% to 23%.   Capitalism is not alone; it has a gravedigger, the proletariat.

Milanovic dismisses this. In his new book, “I do believe, to a large extent, [capitalism] is sustainable. Even if all of inequality continue[s] to be the way that [it is], unchecked. It is sustainable, largely, because we don’t have a blueprint for an alternative system. However, something being sustainable, something being efficient, something being good, are two different things.”

Milanovic does not like capitalism, but to use Margaret Thatcher’s phrase in referring to her neoliberal policies for capitalism: he reckons there is no alternative (TINA).  So the aim must be, just as Keynes argued in the 1930s: “to make capitalism more sustainable. And that’s exactly what I think we should do now”.

The trouble is that Milanovic’s policies to reduce the inequality of wealth and income in capitalist economies and/or allow people to leave their countries of poverty for a better world seem to be just as (if not more) ‘utopian’ a future under capitalism than the ‘socialist utopia’ he rules out.

Capitalism at work: US workers fall further behind

This is from January 2013 but there is some useful information it it and it is not likely that things have improved. Today, 1 in 8 Americans live in poverty according to a recent report in the Economist.

by Richard Mellor

The Wall Street Journal reports that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reckons more than 40 million Americans aren’t getting enough sleep, that’s 30% of the civilian workforce and researchers at Harvard Medical School say “sleep deprivation costs US companies $63.2 billion in lost productivity per year.”

Well, that’s a problem, lost production. The bosses have a new word for it, not absenteeism but “presenteeism” people making it to work but being too sleep deprived for them to extract sufficient surplus value from their Labor power------big problem indeed. Capitalists, the purchasers of Labor power don’t put people to work out of the kindness of their hearts, their profits come from surplus value, the difference between the value of the capital involved in the Labor process (work) and the value of the product produced by it, a product that he or she is the rightful owner of.

So a worker not performing up to par cuts in to their profits.  "If we treated machinery like we treat the human body, there would be breakdowns all the time," James Maas, a former Cornell University psychologist tells the WSJ.  We know that throughout history, workers have always been treated as machinery or like any other object owned by its purchaser.  Capitalism has been no different as the Dickensian world of Victorian England; the textile mills of New England, the mines of Bolivia and factories of Asia today show us.

Forming collective associations won better conditions for workers but as we are witnessing presently, the bosses are forever seeking ways to increase the exploitation of Labor, it’s the way the system works.

There’s a general perception that, “sleep is for sissies and lingerers,” the Journal writes.  But this mentality doesn’t arise from thin air.  This view is quite strong in the US as is the idea that we should be open 24/7 and eat our breakfast on the run or never take sick days or holidays.  Time spent from work is surplus value lost.

The big business media boasts of the superior productivity of US workers.  But we are more productive because we spend more time on the job.  We are away from home, away from or families, own less of our own time than workers in practically all of the major advanced capitalist economies.

In 1960, 20% of mothers worked.  By 2010 70% of American children lived in households where all adults arte employed according to the Center for American Progress.   One aspect of this is that despite advances made by women, most of the child rearing and household work still falls to them.

In addition, according to the CAP:

The U.S. is the ONLY country in the Americas without a national paid parental leave benefit. The average is over 12 weeks of paid leave anywhere other than Europe and over 20 weeks in Europe.

Zero industrialized nations are without a mandatory option for new parents to take parental leave. That is, except for the United States.

Here are some other causes of sleep deprivation in the US:
At least 134 countries have laws setting the maximum length of the workweek; the U.S. does not.

In the U.S., 85.8 percent of males and 66.5 percent of females work more than 40 hours per week.

According to the ILO, “Americans work 137 more hours per year than Japanese workers, 260 more hours per year than British workers, and 499 more hours per year than French workers.”

Using data by the U.S. BLS, the average productivity per American worker has increased 400% since 1950. One way to look at that is that it should only take one-quarter the work hours, or 11 hours per week, to afford the same standard of living as a worker in 1950 (or our standard of living should be 4 times higher). Is that the case? Obviously not. Someone is profiting, it’s just not the average American worker.

American Paid Vacation Time & Sick Time:
There is not a federal law requiring paid sick days in the United States.

The U.S. remains the only industrialized country in the world that has no legally mandated annual leave.

In every country included except Canada and Japan (and the U.S., which averages 13 days/per year), workers get at least 20 paid vacation days.  In France and Finland, they get 30 – an entire month off, paid, every year.

When we add to this incredibly fast paced and competitive existence, the insecurity, inequality and lack of social services, it is no wonder people can’t sleep at night.  This generally unhealthy environment, being subjected to endless ads and living in a 24 hour marketplace pressed to buy the commodities produced in every corner of the globe in order that the owners of capital can realize the wealth from the unpaid Labor that they contain within them, it is this that makes us sick in so many ways, even to the point of violence.

How disgusting are the ads we see now of young 12 year olds telling two other 8 year olds how they “have it made” because they can download something faster from their phones or “record four shows at once”. Is this really happiness? Civilization?

One of the primary factors in the increased exploitation and “squeezing” of more productivity for less pay from workers in this country is the decline in Union power and the complete capitulation by the heads of organized Labor to the laws of the market.  The 1984 AFL-CIO platform to the Democratic Party Convention called for shorter working hours.  A 32 or 30-hour workweek with no loss in pay is not in the lexicon of the Labor hierarchy who have abandoned any pretense of fighting back against this offensive of capitalism.

But this would be a very first and basic step in reducing the stress people face in their lives.  This will have to be fought for by the mass movement, but we must at least overcome the obstacle in our own consciousness that tells us it is unrealistic or society cannot afford it.  Like the discussions between the two Wall Street Parties on what they call the budgetary crisis, or the crisis of stress and sleeplessness that overwhelm America n workers, the only solutions on their table are those that improve their ability to make profit. 

Freedom isn’t an I Phone or the fact that you can own a Harley, a 42” TV or a pistol. Freedom is controlling our work life and collectively owning the means of producing what we need; it’s having power in the workplace.  Instead of life beginning after work it should begin at work.  “Man is born to labor and the bird to fly” it says in the book of Job.  Humans produce things of use, that’s what we do, what we’ve always done and we’ve done it most efficiently as a collective.  Without production there is no life.  But until workers of all types and nations control production, how we produce our needs, what we produce, and how we distribute the products of our labor, it is not an exaggeration to say that life as we know it will cease on this planet. 

Not getting enough sleep will be the least of our problems.

Friday, October 11, 2019

GM Strike: Interview with UAW Member Sean Crawford.

Richard Mellor
Afscme Local 444, retired

We share this interview with Sean Crawford, member of UAW Local 598 - Flint Truck from The Real News. He talks here about the importance of building working class unity throughout industry not just in the US but internationally as well.

The point Sean makes about the temporaries is important. For years, due to the union leadership's capitulation to concessions and the introduction of the tier system, new hires come in at lower wages for the same work and often as temps, so we have workers working alongside other workers but earning much less money and in the case of GM here, as temps for years. This causes animosity and demoralization among the workers and weakens unity. The trade union hierarchy has unfortunately brought us to this point (in numerous industries) by helping the bosses cut costs through the tier system for new hires. New hires not yet having a job, are not able to vote on a concessionary contract that throws them to the wolves. The GM workers are trying in this strike to reverse this disastrous policy.

What with the teachers strikes over the past couple of years there exists an opportunity to really begin to build a powerful working class movement, breaking for the narrow jurisdictional squabbling so common among the heads of organized labor in competing unions. All after revenue in the form of dues money. 

I'll reprint again what John Henning, the former Executive Secretary of the California Labor Federation said:

"There should originate, in the leadership of the AFL-CIO, a call to the unions for the only answer that is noble: global unionism is the answer to global capitalism. ……We were never meant to be beggars at the table of wealth.  We were never meant to be the apostles of labor cannibalism on the world stage.  We were meant for a higher destiny.  We were never meant to be the lieutenants of capitalism.  We were never meant to be the pall bearers of the workers of the world."  Jack Henning, Executive Secretary California State Labor Federation opening address to the 1994 state convention.

Unfortunately, Henning did little or nothing to use his position to make this a reality but that doesn’t take anything away form the statement.  The other important thing is that as long as the present leadership of organized labor or any individual or caucuses claiming to offer an alternative leadership and approach supports the Team Concept, the view that workers  and management, capital and labor have the same interests, normally applied through jointness programs, we cannot succeed in building the solidarity and movement need to drive back this capitalist offensive.

The Team Concept and Jointness Programs must be openly condemned and the class lines drawn. 

Wednesday, October 9, 2019


From Frank Hammer

A lively crowd of Local 222 members and retirees came out Monday night, October 7, to show their solidarity with the workers who are taking on GM in the states.

Sean Crawford (UAW Local 598 - Flint Truck) and Frank Hammer (past President UAW Local 909 - Warren Transmission) gave great presentations about the battle that is being waged right now, and the rank-and-file determination to get rid of two tier agreements and win equality for temps. They also talked about the urgent need to convert our plants to green sustainable production - mass transit, electric vehicles, wind turbines.

We need more international solidarity to beat these greedy international corporations.

China/NBA: Fans of Free Expression Were Not So Generous to Kaepernick

Richard Mellor
Afscme Local 444, retired

Big news over here in the US is a tweet a National Basketball Association (NBA) exec, Daryl Morey the general manager of the Houston Rockets basketball team, sent out supporting the protests in Hong Kong. Basketball has been growing in popularity in China fueled in part by the success of Yao Ming who played for the Rockets and who is the chairman of the Chinese Basketball Association and earlier with the world popularity of Michael Jordan. The NBA has been in China since the late 1980’s.

With issues like these or any other serious matters in society, what determines the reaction to it from the mass media and the political representatives of Wall Street is money. There is no such thing as justice or doing the right thing; money and profits is what matters.

Morey’s tweet was removed and the league says he will not be disciplined but the fallout is heavy as politicians from both capitalist parties criticized the NBA as being weak on the issue and putting money before human rights. NBA commissioner Adam Silver cleared that up in an announcement yesterday (10-8-19) that the league would not apologize for the tweet and supports free speech for NBA players and executives. So the NBA has refused to apologize to Beijing an in response, the Chinese Basketball Association has suspended ties with the Rockets and Chinese media companies have stated they won’t broadcast Houston games. Silver said that it is unfortunate that people are offended and that, "we come with basketball as an opportunity to sow dreams, sow hopes, that to increasingly focus on physical fitness....mental health." So the motive for introducing basketball to China is egalitarian it seems.

Silver's words appeared very sincere but he forgot to mention profits. The US basketball business and its organization the NBA is in China first and foremost to make money for its investors.

Of course money is paramount and with 1.4 billion people China is a very lucrative market. There are 300 million players in China and 500 million that watch the NBA. The Houston Rockets, because of Yao Ming’s association with them, is one of the most popular teams. The NBA is under pressure from the hypocrites at home not to apologize to the Chinese government but the pressure is on. NBA executives are scrambling to find some middle ground between their commitment to democratic rights and the Stalinist bureaucracy.

Rockets star James Harden has publicly apologized to China adding that, “We love China. We love playing there. For both of us individually, we go there once or twice a year. They show us the most important love. We appreciate them as a fan base, and we love everything they’re about.”  Mr Harden was with his teammate Russell Westbrook in Tokyo when he made these statements.

It's possible that the owners and the NBA big wigs might be encouraging players to counter Morey's tweet confirming the NBA's commitment to free speech regardless of whether it's a player, executive or even if they disagree. It's difficult to say but I wouldn't put it past them.  Harden and Westbrook along with many other NBA stars also have lucrative contracts with Nike and Adidas and along with other celebrities go to China to promote their footwear. I don’t think any of them spend much time in Cambodia or Vietnam where workers produce the shoes that make millions for the sports figures that wear them. I seem to recall Michael Jordan, now worth about $2 billion, refusing to meet Vietnamese workers that came to the US to make public the treatment they were facing in the factories that made Jordan’s shoes and his millions.
Houston's James Hardin tries to smooth things over

Today's professional athletes are literally pimps for the corporations. I angered a friend who loves football (the game where you use your feet) at the bar one night when two teams were playing. I don’t watch it as much as I used to and I said to her, “I see Emirates is playing Vodaphone” as the players were plastered with corporate logos to the extent that I couldn’t identify the team.  She wanted me to let her enjoy the game and keep politics out of it not realizing the game is totally politicized.

The Wall Street Journal pointed out today that the NBA has some leverage and that “both sides of this dispute rely on each other.”.   Unlike other businesses that have capitulated to pressure from Beijing which in disputes has alternatives, “…there’s only one NBA….”, the WSJ writes.  Stressing that what strengthens Beijing’s hand in those situations is that, “There are other hotels airlines and clothing brands but NBA basketball is irreplaceable.”

Silver stated on TV last night that the NBA “would not put itself in a position of regulating what players, employers and team owners can say.”

I have to say, I don’t know the details but I wonder how many of these politicians defending the NBA and free speech when it comes to criticizing China’s human rights record were vocal in their public support of Colin Kaepernick, the American football player who took a knee during the playing of the national anthem to protest police violence and racism in US society. The capitalist media assault on Kaepernick was successful in molding public opinion convincing people that he was protesting the flag and insulting veterans and very few politicians were outspoken about the US mass media’s blatant lies. The racists jumped on board claiming that sports events aren’t the place for the public expression of political views as if the presence of US Marines and the flying of jets over stadiums before games is not political.

I don’t know enough about the NBA or basketball to gauge where this will end up but I know that there are players and owners here in the US that are billionaires and millionaires and that apparel company executives also grab their share of the loot from the sports entertainment business as do media moguls. They all get rich off of workers in China, Cambodia, Vietnam, Bangladesh and other places who produce the apparel and the shoes that make them rich. Workers in Cambodia that have gone on strike to get some relief have been shot by security forces.

Healthy competition in sport is an important aspect of human culture. Not so when it is a business and a road to riches for a few. In the US, the universities provide a pool of individuals from which professional teams can draw. There is also rampant corruption and abuse in college sports as well. For many young people from poor backgrounds or marginalized communities sport can be a ticket to a college education. Free education from K through college would be a terrible thing for investors in the sports industry.

I remember when all sport was amateur and you could tell which soccer team was which or which team an individual was on by watching the game. Now, they are simply corporate players.

Like any other major industry, the sports business is global and those with the most money win. What chance Botswana or many of the other African countries or former colonial countries anywhere becoming champions of the world? Very unlikely. In the last men’s World Cup (soccer) that France won, there were numerous African players. “It’s a shame that for an African to make it in to the final of the world cup he has to change his nationality” one guy wrote.

All sport should be amateur and subsidized. It should be an integral part of our education, a healthy collective social necessity. As it is, our children watch and worship millionaires that they are encouraged to emulate, that they desire to be; it has brutal repercussions for the poorest among us. It is individualistic and alienating as we spend time watching these ‘gods” rather than participating ourselves. On the news last night the sport commentator referred to a taunting one player was directing at another as “trash talking” and how  “a little trash talking is to be expected”. Why is that?  Why has humiliating your opponent become an accepted behavior? That winning is everything and the game is secondary is one reason. You don’t bring in revenue when you lose. It’s the same with art. The weekly report of the best film of that week is always dominated by the one that rakes in the most money which is usually the worst piece of artistic creation.

Take the profit and big business out of Education, energy, transportation, health care and all major social needs and major industries including sport. The squabble here between the NBA and the Chinese bureaucracy and the phony defense of democracy from the US political representatives of capital is of no serious consequence to working class people. Let’s not forget that in China, the conditions that many workers face are so inhuman that in one factory (Foxconn) nets were placed below the windows in workers ‘dorms as so many workers chose suicide to escape a life of misery.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Marxist Economics: Knowledge commodities

by Michael Roberts

In the Oxford Handbook of Karl Marx, Thomas Rotta and Rodrigo Teixeira have a chapter called the commodification of knowledge and information.  In this chapter, they argue that knowledge is ‘immaterial labour’ and ‘knowledge commodities’ are increasingly replacing material commodities in modern capitalism.

“Examples of knowledge- commodities are all sorts of commodified data, computer software, chemical formulas, patented information, recorded music, copyrighted compositions and movies, and monopolized scientific knowledge.”

According to Rotta and Teixeira, these knowledge commodities do not have any value in Marxist terms because their reproduction tends to be costless.  Knowledge can be reproduced infinitely without cost.  Previous authors have claimed that because knowledge commodities have no value, Marx’s law of value no longer holds.  Rotta and Teixeira argue that they can restore Marx’s law of value as an explanation of knowledge commodities.  And their solution is that, although knowledge commodities have no value, the owners of such commodities through patents and copyrights etc can extract rents from productive capitalist sectors, in the same way, as Marx explained, rents were extracted by landlords (through their monopoly of land) from productive capitalists.  They conclude by estimating the increased amount of value being extracted in the form of ‘rents’ by ‘knowledge industries’.

Does Rotta and Teixeira’s apparent defence of Marx law of value in relation to the information industry hold up?  I don’t think so.  Here’s why.  First, Rotta and Teixeira, like other authors before them (Negri etc), misunderstand Marx’s value theory on this question.  Just because knowledge is intangible, it does not make it immaterial.  Knowledge is material.  Both tangible objects and mental thoughts are material. Both require the expenditure of human energy, which is material, as shown by human metabolism.

More specifically, the expenditure of human energy that constitutes the cognitive process, thinking, causes a change in the nervous system, in the interconnections between the neurons of the brain. This is called synapsis. It is these changes that make possible a different perception of the world. So to deny that knowledge, even if intangible, is material is to ignore the results of neuroscience. After all, if electricity and its effects are material, why should the electrical activity of the brain and its effect (knowledge) not also be material? There is no ‘immaterial’ labour, despite the claims of all the ‘knowledge Marxists’ , including it seems Rotta and Teixeira. The dichotomy is not between material and mental labour, but whether it is tangible or not.

The second mistake that Rotta and Teixeira make is that because knowledge is ‘immaterial’, it is unproductive labour that produces no value.  But productive labour is labour expended under the capitalist production relation. Productive labour is not just what produces physical goods.  Productive labour also includes what mainstream economists call services.  As Marx explained: if a capitalist has a servant, that is unproductive labour.  But if he goes to a hotel and uses a valet to take his luggage to the room, that valet delivers productive labour because he/she is working for the capitalist owner of the hotel for a wage.

Rotta and Teixeira give us the example of a live concert performance. “Hence, what we call a concert is in act a bundle of several commodities, among them knowledge- commodities such as musical compositions. The live performance is a combination of the productive labor of musicians and technical staff, plus the unproductive labor of those who composed the songs in the first place.”  But what is unproductive about the composer?  He/she can sell that piece of music as copyright and performance royalties on the market.  Royalties must be paid if the music is used in the concert.  Surplus value is created and realised.

Then there is the example of a smart phone. “When you buy a smartphone, part of the phone price covers the production costs of the physical components. But another part of the price remunerates the patented design and the copyrighted software stored in the memory. The copyrighted parts of the phone are therefore knowledge-commodities, and the revenues associated with these specific components are knowledge-rents.”  But why are the revenues from copyright and patents considered only rents?  The idea, the design, and operating system have all been produced by mental labour employed by capitalist companies. The companies exploit that labour and appropriate surplus value by selling or leasing the software. This is productive labour and it produces value. It is no different from a pharma company employing scientists to come up with a formula for a new drug which they can sell on the market with a patent held for years.

For the same reason, the production of knowledge (mental labour) can be productive of value and surplus value if it is mental labour performed for capital. In this case, the quantity of new value generated during the mental labour process is given by the length and intensity of the abstract mental labour performed, given the value of the labour power of the mental labourers. Surplus value, then, is the new value generated by the mental labourers minus the value of their labour power; and the rate of exploitation is that surplus value divided by the value of their labour power.

The value of knowledge (and of any mental product) might be incorporated in an objective shell or not. In both cases it is an intangible but material commodity whose value is determined by the new value produced plus the value of the means of production used. The computer programmer or website maker is in principle just as productive as the worker making the computer if both work for the computer company.  Thus, knowledge production implies production of value and surplus value (exploitation) and not rent. Once produced, the capitalists owners of mental products (knowledge) can then extract ‘rent’ from their intellectual property (the knowledge produced by mental labourers for them) by applying to it intellectual property rights. But there is production of value first. The difference between production and appropriation is fundamental.

Also it is not correct to say that the value of mental labour and knowledge commodities cannot be quantified.  Rotta and Teixeira, to back their claim that reproduction of knowledge has no value, quote Marx: “But in addition to the material wear and tear, a machine also undergoes what we might call a moral depreciation. It loses exchange- value, either because machines of the same sort are being produced more cheaply than it was, or because better machines are entering into competition with it. In both cases, however young and full of life the machine may be, its value is no longer determined by the necessary labour time actually objectified in it, but by the labour time necessary to reproduce either it or the better machine. It has therefore been devalued to a greater or lesser extent.”

Rotta and Teixeira think this shows that, because the labour time to reproduce a machine might fall below the value of the first machine due to technical progress (moral depreciation), Marx is suggesting that knowledge commodities will tend to have no value at all because knowledge can be reproduced infinitely without labour time expended.  But this quote from Marx refers to the value of each new production process where the labour time involved in the value of a commodity (machine) falls. But that would not lead to a fall in the profitability of capital invested right down to zero.  The average rate of profit is determined by the initial fixed capital costs and any circulating capital costs involved in reproduction.  Profitability would still be determined by all the stages of production of the commodity, even if the value of each newly produced commodity falls.

And knowledge commodities cannot be produced for nothing because they are material.  The productivity of physical, tangible commodities is measured in units of output per unit of capital invested. This holds just as much for mental production, or knowledge commodities, say, a video game. The mental product can be contained in an objective shell (a DVD). The DVDs produced can be counted. It can also be contained in a digital file and be downloaded from a website to a computer and then onto another. The number of downloads can be counted. In short, mental output or knowledge commodities can be counted. On websites, the number of hits can be counted.  The reproduction becomes the numerator for productivity and profitability.

The original capital invested, the denominator, can be also be measured.  First, there is the capital invested in the prototype. This is not only fixed constant capital (computers, premises, facilities, chips foundries, assembly plants, etc.). It is also circulating constant capital (raw materials) and variable capital, wages, which go from very high (for highly qualified developers) to low. Then there are the costs of administration, of presale advertising and other marketing costs. Then there is the additional capital invested in the reproduction of the replicas of the prototype. In reality, the total value of the knowledge commodity can be high, not zero. The unit value is then given by the total value divided by the number of replicas made. It is directly proportional to the total value and inversely proportional to the quantity of the replicas. The value of reproducing such knowledge commodities won’t go towards zero because there are always replication costs of the knowledge commodity in delivery to the user.

Again, the reproduction of any knowledge commodity is no different from the reproduction of a new drug by a pharma company.  Built into the price of the drug is the initial cost of employing mental labour, testing the drug for humans etc, the production of the pills, liquids plus any equipment for administering it and so on.  Sure, the unit cost of the production of each new pill may fall to a very low value, but that does not mean that total value and unit value has fallen to zero.

In sum, knowledge is material (if intangible) and if knowledge commodities are produced under conditions of capitalist production ie using mental labour and selling the idea, the formula, the program, the music etc on the market, then value can be created by mental labour.  Value then comes from exploitation of productive labour, as per Marx’s law of value. There is no need to invoke the concept of rent extraction to explain the profits of pharma companies or Google.  The so-called ‘renterisation’ of modern capitalist economies that is now so popular as a modification or a supplanting of Marx’s law of value is not supported by knowledge commodity production.

Much of the arguments I have presented here were first comprehensively and brilliantly created by Guglielmo Carchedi in his paper,
Old wine, new bottles and the internet, in Work, Organisation, labour and Globalisation, Volume 8, Number 1, Autumn 2Ol4.  His mental labour has been very productive, but as he did not patent it, the reproduction of his arguments here have cost me little (zero?).  So any credit that I get will thus be a huge extraction of rent from him.

Monday, October 7, 2019

GM Strike. UAW Leadership's Strategy Another Lost Opportunity for Organized Labor

Richard Mellor
Afscme Local 444, retired

When I sit down to write an article, picking a title is usually the hardest part of the process. But watching some news last night about the UAW/GM strike after UAW negotiators sent out an email to members on Sunday that the talks were going very badly, convinced me that my title, GM Strike: The Auto Workers Are Up Against Global Capitalism was the right choice. Please have a read.

As I stated previously, it appeared from reports in the media last Friday, based on a letter Terry Dittes, the UAW’s top negotiator sent to the members, that a tentative agreement was in the works as they had found “common ground” on health care. On Saturday, the mood was positive and the UAW leadership presented GM with a proposal they thought would bring results.

Oh my! The GM bosses responded with a swift kick in the testicles returning with a proposal that had already been rejected according to reports. Remember, the present UAW leadership, aside from some top officers being investigated for corruption, by the masters of corruption, is the same leadership whose disastrous organizing strategies have failed to organize the VW plant in Chattanooga TN and have cooperated with the auto bosses in savaging the wages, benefits and working conditions of the unionized auto workers. They have been so cooperative, the Auto bosses are close to the point where they don’t need them at all.

So Dittes sends a letter out Sunday (yesterday) to his members who have been on strike for three weeks that things had deteriorated and blamed GM for the lack of progress. GM were refusing to “provide enough job security in the next four year contract” Dittes wrote.

Meanwhile, in a separate letter to the GM management on the same day, Dittes writes,  “During your response to our proposal delivered at 9:05 am today, Sunday, October 6, 2019, you didn’t even have a professional courtesy to explain why you could not accept or why you rejected our package proposal for each item we addressed. We expect the Company to respond and discuss the package proposal we presented yesterday. The law and basic decency require no less.” Original on the UAW website.

This is the current state of the top leadership of not only the UAW but the organized working class in the US today; “professional courtesy”?   “The law and basic decency require no less”?  It’s like a Monty Python sketch. Neither the law nor professional courtesy carry any weight when profits are concerned.

Weakness Breeds Aggression in a Class War
The utter bankruptcy of the UAW leadership is bad enough but the price the UAW members in auto pay for this class collaboration is dire, and we should not forget that GM janitors represented by the UAW are also on strike.  Beyond that, all workers will pay for this treachery. I asked some Trump loving former co-worker the other day what was it about Trump that he thought was good for him. He had no real answer other than to say with regard to our workplace that Trump hasn’t hurt us. This backward, individualistic thinking has penetrated our consciousness to a great degree.

For years I warned my brothers and sisters that defeats for the auto-workers and the UAW, once a benchmark for entry in to the US middle class for working people, will mean an increased assault on the public sector. The public sector is the last bastion of unionism in the US with some 34% of us unionized compared to around 7% for the private sector----about 12% total. The auto workers struggle against the bosses and their partnership with our own leaders is a struggle all workers must see as our own. The public sector is being savaged with the same cooperation from the heads of organized labor. The teachers/educators gains were made in states where the labor hierarchy is weaker.  It was by-passing the established leadership and ignoring and abandoning their failed policies that brought victories. This has had a very positive affect on the labor movement and the working class as a whole.

That a sticking point is the demand from the UAW negotiators for job security reveals this bankrupt leadership’s thinking. As I wrote previously,

“Once again, there is no such thing as job security in the so-called free market system. Capitalism doesn’t work like that. If we take the two plants that were initially scheduled for closure, the Lordstown plant and the Detroit Hamtramick plant, they have been, as the WSJ reported, “….sputtering along at less than half their capacity, building cars that a dwindling number of people want to buy.” (WSJ, 9-19-2019).  Unused capacity is not conducive to investment and no capitalist party or government will argue otherwise.”

The biggest problem with top officials like Dittes is that they are trapped by their own consciousness; the “stop in the mind” as the British historian Christopher Hill called it. They agree with the bosses when it comes to how the world must work. They worship the market and see no alternative to capitalism; they hope they’ll keep their perks, make it to retirement and the devil take the hindmost. The reader must be aware that folks like Dittes read the important capitalist journals. GM bosses like CEO Mary Barra meant it when she told assured investors, “We are willing to make tough and strategic decisions to not only meet our commitments but to secure the company’s future,”.

One of the workers I saw on the picket line, after hearing of GM’s hard line said, "It made us feel that we're not appreciated for the work that we do." It’s hard to imagine anyone can think that about the corporate bosses given the savaging the US working class has taken over the past 40 years. But it is the conscious class collaboration that the UAW leadership practice that has helped to drive back the class consciousness of the US worker.

For years now, the auto bosses and the UAW leadership have cooperated in convincing workers that there is no alternative to concessions; that we can’t win. There is no real objective ideological or organizational challenge to this argument that comes at us from the pulpit, the universities which are capitalist think tanks, the trade union leadership and the mass capitalist media. They are right of course; we cannot win if we accept that profit is sacrosanct, capitalism permanent and that workers cannot manage the economy, cannot decide what’s best for all of us, cannot govern society.

A lesson we must draw from the teachers strikes that took place in right to work states led by right wing Republicans is that this is not true (this is not an endorsement for the Democrats as we have suffered under both administrations). The teachers/educators movement undermined that argument and it’s a dangerous precedent for the present pro-market trade union hierarchy and the self styled socialist organizations with many members in the trade union movement who refuse to challenge the leadership on whom they depend for recognition or jobs. Here is a short video of a contribution I made at a DSA meeting during the Oakland CA teachers strike. I made a leading figure in the DSA figure in the union work (a UAW member at the university I believe) quite angry with this contribution and despite 30 years of union activity on the shop floor I am persona non grata when it comes to DSA and union work.

To stay afloat with the present approach of the UAW leadership, workers in the US will have to take a lot more hits to compete with workers in Cambodia, China, Mexico and so on.  This is why international solidarity is so crucial. Here’s a list of GM’s plants. Capitalism has no problem with borders. It likes to cross them whenever it is profitable to do so. The Wall Street Journal once referred to it as Full Spectrum Dominance.

I need to cut this short but as workers and rank and file union members we have to recognize that despite the decline in union membership and strikes, with the exception of the education strikes last year, the organized working class has tremendous potential power in the US.

And despite the mistake in striking only one auto manufacturer, the GM strike has shut down production at more than 30 plants in the US. Suppliers and dealerships have been affected leading to thousands of layoffs of non UAW members and non factory workers. Also, dealers are now facing a difficulty getting parts and supplies that will affect consumers-----other workers in other words. GM is welcoming this though it’s losing $50 to $100 million a day and almost $1 billion so far. On the one hand, the investment is worth it for GM as it has to stay competitive in a global marketplace and is thinking long term, and on the other, millions of other workers, many not fortunate enough to have a union, benefits, healthcare let alone a pension, will suffer and GM hopes this will undermine any support the UAW members have in the wider public.

This is why it is not enough to say this strike is defending the future for all workers because as it is run it is not. In any strike or labor dispute we have to have demands that draw other sectors of the working class in to struggle and unionized workers have to overcome the not unrealistic view that we only talk about solidarity when it’s our immediate workplaces and needs. Every strike has to be generalized. In this case there has to be a union counter, a reason for other workers being negatively affected by the strike to support it. In West Virginia, striking educators not only own a 5% raise for themselves (up from a 1% offer) they won 5% for every other state worker. What better reason to join or support striking workers than that.

It’s very disappointing, “Everybody is ready to go back to work” a Detroit assembly plant picketer says on TV yesterday. I sympathize; I know what being on strike for a month does to a family. This is the US, you have no money you die.

The rank and file member has to recognize that we are fighting a system; we are fighting global capitalism and in that battle workers internationally are our allies. We cannot rely on any forces except the potential power of working class people to shut the economy down and as part of the movement build a political party of our own. The trade union hierarchy will not act even on small reforms without pressure from below. 

But the millions of dues paying members have to step to the plate. Opposition caucuses have to be built, that reject the false argument about concessions, that reject the so-called law of the market and build a movement from below that can dislodge the present leadership. Any group that tries to overcome this problem within the framework of capitalism will fail. Transportation, which is what auto manufacturing is, must be a public project and production shifted from autos, whether gas or electric to mass transit. See my earlier commentary.

We have seen many struggles against the same forces that are attacking the GM workers now. Standing Rock, the movements against racism and the climate strikes. I saw a former UAW president Frank Hammer speaking last week and he raised the need for the GM strike and the climate strike to come together. When other workers are being beaten down, when racism and poverty are destroying entire communities and when women are screaming for help against sexual abuse on the job and off, organized labor has to be in the forefront of those struggles building allies and standing up for all the oppressed. I realize that many UAW members supported the sexual predator and racist Donald Trump. I hope lessons have been learned here.

To be silent on all these other issues, when immigrant children fleeing persecution and poverty are being thrown in concentration camps in the US is not acceptable. We win allies by fighting for and with them.

I have heard that there are some rumblings within the leadership of the UAW. This would be a positive development and it is inevitable that pressure from the ranks if significant enough, would cause some splits at the top. But in the last analysis, it is up to the rank and file of the labor movement to step to the plate and reverse course.

Saturday, October 5, 2019

GM Strike: The Auto Workers Are Up Against Global Capitalism

On the Line in Flint. Has the UAW leadership been in the front lines of the struggle against poisoned drinking water?
Richard Mellor
Afscme Local 444, retired
Member DSA

"There should originate, in the leadership of the AFL-CIO, a call to the unions for the only answer that is noble: global unionism is the answer to global capitalism. ……We were never meant to be beggars at the table of wealth.  We were never meant to be the apostles of labor cannibalism on the world stage.  We were meant for a higher destiny.  We were never meant to be the lieutenants of capitalism.  We were never meant to be the pall bearers of the workers of the world."
 Jack Henning, Executive Secretary California State Labor Federation opening address to the 1994 state convention. *

Unfortunately, as correct as the statement above is, Henning limited his activity on this issue to speeches. I was a delegate to this convention and he opposed my union’s resolution for an independent labor party based on the trade unions.

So we’re in the 19th day of the UAW strike at General Motors and I was told by one auto worker that the UAW leadership should walk away from the table. The longer the strike goes on the harder it will be for the rank and file member on the picket lines, out of work and getting $250 a week strike pay.

I did read an article yesterday by Jane Slaughter, the former editor of Labor Notes and there was little to inspire much hope there. It was basically just reporting on events with a few quotes from workers on the picket lines and a call to show solidarity by visiting picket lines with links to where those lines are. While she did refer to the labor hierarchy as a “pro-cooperation leaders” the piece is basically a cheerleading effort aimed at making people feel better in a tough situation; a report on events. A socialist and any group or individual vying for leadership must have an alternative I believe.

From what we can get through the mass media, the sticking points are the temporary workers, the tier system, health care, job security and a greater share of the profits. The UAW leadership did get tough the past week according to reports I read, threatening to take a vote of “No Confidence” in GM CEO Mary Barra and, gasp, making it public.  

While making temporaries permanent and giving them equal pay immediately plus back pay they have stolen from them, would be a welcome victory, it is not likely to happen. GM needs temporaries and the UAW leadership agrees with them.

A strike of 46,000 workers at GM has the potential to transform organized labor in the US and the balance of class forces nationally. Thousands of workers in other plants and in connected industries have been furloughed and the longer the strike goes the more workers along the supply chain will be affected.

The strike should have not been limited to GM only. Extensions were given Ford and Chrysler/Fiat and the disastrous jointness programs between the UAW and the other two corporations were kept in place. The negotiations are secret and the ranks are basically kept out of the loop, just carrying picket signs and losing money. Imagine what could be done with 46,000 workers, their families, friends and allies building a real offensive against the auto-bosses and ensuring this strike hurts them and their class as a whole. As big as the numbers out imply, this strike is still isolated and contained and the potential power and conscious involvement of workers and our families kept under wraps.

The UAW leadership, wedded as they are to the Team Concept (labor management cooperation) and the so-called free market (capitalism) want this over as quickly as possible and hope that they can get some small consolation prize from GM to pacify the ranks and get everyone back to work--------till the next time. What is guaranteed is that the bosses won’t stop this assault on organized labor.

The auto workers can make major gains and we can transform the capital/labor situation in the US, but not with the approach we are witnessing here. We have to look at the big picture. The GM bosses and faceless investors do.

I watched a report on the strike last night that didn’t say much at all but what was said was crucial and this should be our starting point as workers. A columnist said that: “If GM can’t be competitive, they go out of business”.

This is not some tactic to get the workers to back off. It’s reality in a global capitalist economy. Let’s see what big business and a serious journal of capitalism says about the situation.

The Wall Street Journal of September 27th had this to say: “For the UAW, there’s no avoiding the harsh reality of a wider transition taking hold across the auto industry: Building electric vehicles requires far fewer workers, making it near-impossible to avoid job losses and wage cuts. In addition, fewer components are needed, and many of them are imported.”( My added emphasis)

The journal stresses that, “…electric cars have fewer moving parts and are less complex to assemble, requiring roughly 30% fewer workers to build compared with a gas-engine vehicle, analysts and industry executives say. Morgan Stanley estimates widespread adoption of electric vehicles globally could eliminate 3 million auto-industry jobs.” (my added emphasis).

The Journal points out that GM is “redirecting capital” to produce 20 new electric models in the next few years “mostly in China”.  The plant closures and other cuts will fund this production GM says. And it is not simply the cheaper labor in China either that compels them to do this, it is the struggle for markets against its competitors like VW, BMW and the Japanese auto-producers. Ford is also cutting costs freeing up capital to spend some $11 billion on electric car production. This is what capitalism is.

And as a compliment to the quote above from the columnist, Mary Barra, the GM CEO told auto industry analysts earlier this year that, “We are willing to make tough and strategic decisions to not only meet our commitments but to secure the company’s future,”. The present strike is a response to Barra’s “tough decisions”. The problem is, that the UAW leaderships approach to the tough decisions is a very conciliatory one. It imposes extreme hardship on the rank and file worker on the picket line with very limited, if any reward. I’ll bet the union negotiators and paid officials are not on strike pay.

What the GM workers are up against here is global capitalism. There can be no talking of defending the interests of all workers or saving our future if we do not recognize that we are confronting global capitalism and that means refusing to accept in our own minds that we cannot win unless we change the very nature of work and society. We can’t win if we accept that we have to compete with other workers and we do that by accepting jointness programs and the Team Concept which means we join with our individual employers to help them drive their competitors from the marketplace.

This makes regional, north against the south, and unionized auto against non union, or solidarity between workers internationally a very difficult task. GM has plants all over the world; in some countries the auto companies hire goons and killers to terrorize and/or murder union activists. The workers in these plants are our potential allies and are crucial allies if we want to confront this capitalist offensive. The Team Concept and Labor/Management partnerships make this impossible.

As long as we accept that the market rules, that profits are sacrosanct then we lose. GM produces in Mexico, China Brazil or Eastern Europe because workers there are cheaper; capital abhors borders. In some countries autocratic governments ensure that unions are kept out.  The only way for US workers to compete with workers in these countries is for our material conditions to fall to their level, to accept lower wages and declining living standards. The alternative is to join with workers internationally to raise us all up.

There is the potential for mass support for the auto workers here in he US and internationally and even an opportunity for mass strikes. But UAW president Gary Jones explains why cooperating with the auto bosses is more important than a ferocious struggle to defend his members and all workers “We want new investment in technology and products to help keep us on the cutting edge, and training to make sure our workers are competitive,”

There you have it. UAW President Gary Jones is completely in sync with the strategists of capital.  On the important issues he supports the auto bosses and the investors they represent. It is a recipe for disaster.

This narrow-minded approach is the source of all the betrayals and outright class collaboration from the heads of organized labor. We do not own capital that is invested in production in any form. We don’t own the factory, we don’t own the technology, and we don’t own, control and manage the labor process which encompasses all of these. Innovation and technology is also a job killer. We see that everywhere. As an example, “Between 1982 and 1994 manufacturers in the US slashed 4 million jobs still employing roughly the same number of production workers as they did in 1946 but producing approx 5 times as many goods.”  

Whether we actually need what they produce  (we don’t own the product of our labor power) is another thing, but the amazing productivity of labor means we could easily work three or even two day workweeks. The technology the capitalist class owns simply makes the exploitation of labor more efficient.

So we have to make it clear that in the capitalist mode of production there is no such thing as job security. “Workers deserve a car in that plant, not some phony battery plant,” said one GM worker in opposition to GM’s alternative to hire a few hundred laid off workers to make batteries. While I sympathize with this brother’s predicament, it’s a horrible experience to have to go through, but what workers “deserve” doesn’t enter in to the marketing strategy of a global corporation.

GM made $35 billion in profits over the past three years and UAW members want a bigger cut of it, “It’s just not fair” another autoworker said. But as I wrote last week, “The capitalist is under no obligation to “share” profits with the worker. From the perspective of the owners of capital, profits is their just reward for investing in a particular industry. If we as workers don’t grasp that we can never arrive at a winning solution.”

The UAW leadership is incapable of organizing a serious fightback because they see the world the same way the bosses do. Capitalism is the only form of social organization and if GM can’t compete it will go out of business and there will be no jobs and no union.  I will repeat once again, when capitalism goes in to crisis, when profits are threatened, the trade union hierarchy’s immediate strategy is to bail it out and they turn to the members for that. It’s not just in the US. German labor leaders convinced workers to take a cut in their annual bonuses to persuade Porsche management to build its first all electric car in the plant they wanted.

The Electric Car is No Answer
There is yet another opportunity for organized labor to go on the offensive and build on the recent teachers/educators struggles that were rank and file led, violated the law and were not exclusionary. This is what will begin to reverse the decades of defeats. There are 46,000 workers that are not participating in turning this strike in to a more generalized struggle through which it would not be impossible to make some real gains. A demand for a shorter workweek with no loss in pay has to return to the forefront of any strike especially when it comes to layoffs. But we are in a new era, the world has changed and we cannot continue in the old way.

With auto we are talking about transportation, how we travel for one place to another whether for work or leisure. The answer to the inefficient fossil fuel guzzling auto is mass transit. “I don’t know where to spend money anymore” says GM President Mark Reuss arguing that capital allocation for gas engines has no future. And think profits when he says this. But the electric car is not the future either.

The president of GM doesn’t know where to spend money in the auto business? The production of mass transit is where we can spend money, allocate vital capital and human resources. But capital is in private hands. Workers do not decide where the wealth in society is allocated any more than we decide whether a factory closes or moves to a community where labor power is cheaper. Workers do not decide what we build or when we build it, what we grow and how we farm it.

The only solution that will offer any future is mass transit. It was GM that created a front company, bought many of the efficient electric tram systems it could in order to shut them down and advance the production of the auto. The taxpayer and public money built the freeways just like we build football stadiums that make owners billionaires and develop new drugs from which executives at big Pharma profit

The only viable solution is for the auto industry to be taken in to public ownership control and management by workers as workers and as consumers and the industry completely re-tooled in order to produce mass transit that serves a social need. The necessity for transportation in a modern economy with millions of people cannot be left to the market. What was Roosevelt’s shift to war production but that.

The capitalist class, the faceless individuals that actually own this area of production and determine its practices will not do this. Their primary concern is profit and personal enrichment and will destroy the entire planet in pursuit of their interests. Only the working class, conscious of ourselves as a class and conscious of the fact that we have distinct material and economic interests in direct opposition to the owners of capital can save the day here. It’s that simple; capitalism cannot be made human and environment friendly.

We have to look this reality right in the eye. We have to understand it and also that in order to make this happen an important step is the emergence of a political party of our own and a break from relying on one of the two capitalist parties for our salvation. Manufacturing lost jobs the last quarter and a new recession or global slump is around the corner exacerbated by the US Predator in Chief Trump. When the slump hits all bets are off.

We have stated on this blog numerous times that the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) with some 60,000 members, along with the Labor Notes organization that has been very successful bringing together thousands of rank and file union members, have the resources to help build on the movement the teachers/educators started, bring together the various struggles that are taking place throughout the country (including the climate strikes) and do what the trade union hierarchy refuses to do. It is not enough to simply act as cheerleaders in struggles like the present GM or the teachers’ strikes in California. The trade union leaderships failed policies have to be confronted and an alternative shown.