Monday, September 14, 2015

UAW: Auto workers contracts expire today. What's the plan?

Team Concessions 2015: GM CEO Mary Barra, UAW President Dennis Williams and the rest of the "family"in July.
By Richard Mellor
Afscme Local 444, retired

The contracts between the UAW and the “Big Three” auto companies expire today and, as is the norm, the UAW has selected a “target” company in its ongoing negotiations.  The target company is the company that is the focus of bargaining and, hypothetically at least, sets the tone for the entire industry, it’s Chrysler the union announced this weekend. That this strategy has failed autoworkers dismally over the years doesn’t phase the union hierarchy one bit, after all, they never have to work under the concessionary deals they force on their membership.

The present contracts cover around 140,000 workers at Chrysler, GM and Ford and one of the major issues, apart from health and welfare, is the two tiered wage system that the leadership agreed to in2007.

Agreeing to a tiered wage structure has been a common concession aimed at boosting profits for the auto bosses and other employers. It has been used throughout US industry including retail, and the public sector. It is an easy concession to make as the victims of it are the new hires who are in the unfortunate position of not being able to vote on a contract they will have to work under.

Two workers doing the same job with one earning as much as 50% more than the other does not make building solidarity between workers on the job easier. And more often than not it is the union and their higher seniority co-workers that new hires resent for hanging them out to dry. This disastrous strategy is a product of the Team Concept or labor/management cooperation that the union hierarchy subscribes to.

The Team Concept argues that our economic interests lie with our individual (or in some cases national) bosses and that it is in our interests to help them win market share (and greater profits) from their rivals. By accepting this market philosophy we are thrown in to competition with other workers for who can work cheaper, faster and longer hours and with the least impediments to profit-taking like safety rules and most importantly unions with strong rank and file participation and control. The present cooperative labor hierarchy has built a lasting relationship based on labor peace, at their members’ expense of course.

For a US autoworker this might mean competing with Chinese or Mexican workers or those in the non-unionized South, or with each other in the same workplace as the tier system ensures. The only direction we can head in this race is down.  Our interests lie not in joining forces with the employers in their quest for profits, but in linking with all workers to raise wages and improve conditions. There’s only one winner in the Team Concept race and that’s the investors in the industry.

This philosophy is the antithesis of trade unionism and is a disaster for the union member and the working class as a whole.

I do not intend to go in to much detail with regard to the present negotiations that have just begun in earnest. We only have to read what the  bosses’ media is saying to know what the outcome will likely be unless there is a revolt from within the ranks of the UAW and organized labor as a whole: “So far, the UAW and the automakers appear to be playing nice, expressing their desire to work together as partners and come up with an agreement that works for both sides.” Writes James Dornbrook in the Kansas City Business Journal.

That speaks volumes.  The union leadership will not contradict this claim that they want to work together and that they consider themselves “partners” in the process. They are junior partners and as partners it is impossible to mobilize the power of labor against other team leaders. It is a reflection of the decline in class consciousness and a knowledge of our own rich militant history that the leaders of great industrial unions can openly claim to be a partner of the boss and not face a revolt from below.

Dornbrook admits that the UAW leadership faces pressure from the ranks for an increase in pay after years of concessions, especially as the automakers are making profits and that veterans haven’t had raises in 10 years. “The union’s position is equal pay for equal work”, and wants to get rid of the program, but this is a joke; they should have aggressively mobilized their membership against it 8 years ago instead of supporting it in order to help the boss out.

But comforting statements assuring the bosses that their profits will not be threatened are not new.  “We are going to make sure the companies are competitive coming out of these agreements.” , former UAW president Bob King told the bosses at the Detroit Economic Club during the last set of talks that led to the present tier system. Speaking about the contract at the Lake Orion plant in Michigan GM Vice Chairman Stephen J Girsky announced, “I’ve got to have a very competitive and unique labor deal at the Lake Orion plant.”.  Doesn’t appear to be much opposition to the tier system in these comments.

The autoworkers were once the benchmark for an entry to what we call the middle class in the US, what is known as the working class in most other places. Whole generations have worked for what is known as the “Big Three” but the auto bosses, with the active cooperation of the UAW leadership and the heads of organized labor as a whole, have managed to deny to the children of this generation their parent’s lifestyle with those hired after 2007 earning as much as two thirds of those hired prior to that date.

Labor writer Steven Greenhouse gives the example of Jennifer Sanders, a GM worker in Detroit. As a post 2007 hire, after three years she earns $17.53 an hour compared to $28 an hour for those hired before 2007. But because she accepts this idea that we have to compete and that production and therefore jobs cannot exist unless production is for profit, she is accepting of the tier system. “I understand why the two-tier system was set up,”, she says,  “It was necessary back then, but I very much feel that it’s not a necessity anymore. The auto industry has bounced back. They’re making good money.”.

In other words, like so many of us, she is trapped by her own consciousness.  Was the tier system necessary? But how much profit has been made and who has it? Who has it now and who in the past?  How much money is in the pockets of investors put there by years of workers earning half the pay of others? And we should note that the next serious economic crash, not too far in the future, will bounce the ball back the other way----even further.

Workers built unions to protect us from the savagery of the market and the bosses’ rapacious quest for profits, not to facilitate the process.  The process of production for private gain is not a transparent democratic venture. Every autoworker and all their family members going back generations would have no clue what profits have been made off their backs since the dawn of that industry and the same is true for all industry.  We can’t believe the bosses’ when they tell us they are broke or they can’t afford this or that.  The first demand in any such situation should be to open the books to public scrutiny. Let’s see where the money goes.

But what if the industry isn’t making profits? What do we care?  A job, the need to be a productive human being and fulfill our natural potential, and we all need that, need not be dependent on Warren Buffet or Carl Icahn and other coupon clippers making money off the backs of workers engaged in socially productive labor. 

Mass transportation, which is an essential need for a modern society should be a public venture, should be under the ownership and management of workers directly involved as producers and consumers, from engineers to line workers. Profit and the accumulation of riches on the part of a small invisible group of people is what determines what type of mass transportation is produced as things stand. It is inefficient, wasteful and environmentally destructive.

The UAW can legally strike, a right that the leadership gave up as part of the 2009 bankruptcy restructuring. It’s interesting that the 1% never seem to lose their money during bankruptcy hearings. But the right to strike is the most powerful weapon workers have. Like any weapon though, how we use it matters.

So the problem is that even if a strike becomes necessary, the strategists of labor, including those in the UAW, are incapable of organizing a successful one when their philosophy is that the boss is on the same team. It’s impossible to mobilize the power that workers have.  When they are forced to call strikes in order to let off steam and pent up anger in the ranks or to give the impression they are actually fighting for something, the demands are such radical measure as calling on the boss to be nicer at the negotiating table. The cost to the rank and file member is great in terms of money but also in terms of mood and self confidence. "We went out for nothing".

The father of Sanders, quoted above is a retired autoworker who was on the first tier and retired after 37 years with the company. “When I first hired into GM, they were the largest employer in our country, and it was a good place to work with good pay and benefits. You could raise a family on it.”, he says, “But with my daughter, she’s pretty much living paycheck to paycheck. She really isn’t getting ahead. Her health care is less than I have. She has virtually no retirement plan.”

Welcome to the world of the future. Back in 2007, the direct victims of the second tier could not vote on the contract as they were not yet hired.  Eight years later they comprise some 45% of the workforce at Chrysler, according to Greenhouse and this could have a significant affect on a strike vote if it comes to that.

But until the dues paying union member, in the UAW and throughout organized labor, accepts the inevitable; that they can no longer be passive bystanders simply paying the dues and called on to vote this way or that or called out on strike without any serious plan for victory, the results of negotiations that leave workers in a worse condition each time will not change.  

A revolt from below and a conflict with the present leadership over the policies and direction of the labor movement cannot be avoided if change is to occur. Rank and file caucuses have to be built that demand that the Team Concept strategy be abandoned along with the concessionary policies that flow from it---a new leadership has to be built.

At some point this will inevitably occur; when and where is difficult to say.  This writer doesn’t work in the industry and has limited knowledge of it. Perhaps a revolt in this industry will occur in the nonunion foreign plants in the US South or among the younger second tier workers like Jennifer Sanders.  The UAW leadership has been very successful in blocking any threats to their pro-management stance, even to the point of collaborating with the employers to terminate leaders of locals that did so as with the leaders of the UAW local at the Freightliner plant in Cleveland North Carolina some years ago.

It is early yet but unless things change one thing is certain. Even if the second tier has the clout to force the bosses to bring them closer to the first, it will be at the expense of other workers somewhere. The auto bosses will demand that and the union hierarchy will agree. That’s teamwork.

Read past UAW struggles: Rank and File Rebellion at Kokomo here. 

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