Labor's Gotta Play Hardball to Win!

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The Internationalist
  September 2019

Almost 50,000 General Motors Workers Walk Out

For a Big 3 Nationwide Auto Strike!

Spread the Strike – Shut Down GM, Ford, Chrysler
– Bring Out Unionized Parts Plants

Auto workers picketing outside Flint, Michigan assembly plant as the General Motors strike began, September 16.
(Photo: Ryan Garza / Detroit Free Press)

The strike by some 48,000 General Motors workers at 33 manufacturing plants and 22 distribution warehouses in the U.S., which began at midnight on September 15, is now in its second week and going strong. This is no bureaucratic walk-through. GM workers are pissed, as the company demands more concessions and announces plant closures in order to cut costs even as it rakes in billions in profits – $35 billion since 2015, $11 billion last year alone. This is the largest industrial strike in the U.S. in over a decade, following a wave of walkouts by teachers, supermarket, hotel and healthcare workers. It is already the longest walkout at GM since the 67-day strike by 460,000 workers in 1970.

A lot is riding on the outcome: a GM settlement will not only affect Ford and Fiat Chrysler (the other “Big 3” U.S. automakers), it could set the tone for a season of sharp labor struggle as strikes loom in West Coast grocery stores, hospitals and other sectors. But the business-as-usual approach of the United Auto Workers (UAW) leadership cannot win this key battle. Even now, the union leaders have not announced their demands on the company, while GM is “offering” a paltry “raise” of 2% a year (which is less than the rate of inflation, making it a pay cut).

But the union ranks know perfectly well that what’s needed is to get rid of the whole “divide-and-conquer” tier set-up. GM’s obscene profits are a direct result of the two-tier work force that the UAW tops agreed to in the 2007-09 economic crisis, cutting wages for new hires by more than half, with no pension and inferior health care. Then in 2015, in exchange for a supposed “path” to full status for second-tier workers, the union bureaucrats signed off on the creation of a third tier of even lower-paid “temporary” workers. Many of these “permatemps” have been working full-time for years, with only three days of missed work a year, unpaid, and are sometimes even forced to work a seven-day week. Another burning issue is the contracting-out of jobs like those of maintenance workers, who used to be GM employees  

General Motors CEO Mary Barra “is aiming to show Wall Street that today’s GM is leaner and more assertive than the one that collapsed into bankruptcy a decade ago,” writes the Wall Street Journal (20 September). The Journal quoted a Morgan Stanley analyst saying to Barra at an investor conference in New York that with GM’s cost-cutting, “You guys are kicking butt.” The auto giant with its bloated management is hardly lean, but it is plenty mean, cutting off strikers’ health care and demanding that workers pick up 15% of health care costs. Meanwhile on the eve of the strike, the FBI searched top UAW officials’ homes and arrested high-level union officials on corruption charges. The timing was clearly intended to undercut a looming strike.

General Motors, Wall Street and Washington are out for blood. To defeat this assault on auto workers’ jobs and livelihoods will require an all-out struggle. The union ranks should demand:

  • Turn the GM walkout into a nationwide auto strike! “Pattern bargaining” has only led to concession contracts for all. Shut down the Big 3 and bring out UAW-organized parts plants!
  • End tiered labor: every worker must have full status, with full pay, full pension rights and full paid health care at no cost to employees.
  • All workers in the plants should be covered by the GM contract. The UAW’s strength was built on the fact that it was an industrial union representing all employees.
  • Not “profit-sharing” for some but a big raise for all, with a full cost-of-living allowance (COLA) to cover wage loss due to inflation.
  • Create more jobs with a six-hour day with no loss in pay (“30 for 40”), and no forced overtime.
  • Call on the whole union movement to build mass picket lines that no one crosses! This is a class battle. Unions across the country will be affected by whether GM workers win or lose.
  • Form a national UAW strike committee of elected delegates from every local, who can be recalled at any time by the ranks meeting in daily strike assemblies.

Unchain labor’s power – build a workers party! Above all, this strike must be waged politically. Now Democratic presidential candidates including Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden are grandstanding about “supporting” the strike. Yet it was Democrat Barack Obama who shelled out trillions of dollars to the bankers and Wall Street speculators who set off the economic depression, that gave tens of billions to General Motors and Chrysler, took over management and restructured the bankrupt companies, aided by the pro-Democratic UAW tops’ agreement to a giveback contract.

Democrats, Republicans and all capitalist parties represent the bosses. The only way to take power, and put the wealth built up from our labor to serve human needs, is to build a class-struggle workers party to lead the fight for a workers government that would expropriate GM and all of the capitalist exploiters. This is key to socialist revolution worldwide and the establishment of an international socialist planned economy that would put an end to war, racism, poverty and make possible the elimination all forms of social oppression.

UAW Tops Play Ball with the Bosses…

Striking UAW auto workers today are seeking to reverse the draconian concessions wrested from the union during the 2007-09 economic crash. In 2007, the UAW bureaucrats headed by Ron Gettelfinger sought to help the Big 3 bosses be “competitive” with non-union and foreign competitors by agreeing to slash pay for workers hired after 2007 to $14 an hour. Next, the Obama administration oversaw the 2009 bankruptcies and bailouts of GM and Chrysler: the feds gave the GM bosses $68.2 billion as they implemented plant closures that eliminated tens of thousands of jobs and shifted responsibility for paying for retiree health benefits onto the union. On top of this, the Democrats sweetened the “net operating loss” tax loophole so that GM has paid virtually no federal income tax in this decade, and now won’t for years to come.

As the automakers started turning profits again by 2011, UAW leaders – craven and venal even by the abysmal standards of the AFL-CIO labor bureaucracy – refused to mount any effort to fight back. But in 2015, angry workers at Chrysler and GM voted down rotten contracts, forcing renegotiations that set the post-2007 “second tier” workers on an eight-year-long path toward the “traditional pay” of “first tier” workers (who themselves have seen their wages fall 16% against inflation since 2010). At the same time, the 2015 contract expanded GM’s ability to hire “temporary workers” at poverty wages. Temporary workers are now 7% of the company’s hourly workers and GM want that to keep increasing.

In the current round of negotiations, GM announced its insulting “offer” to the union only two hours before the old contract expired. But rather than rejecting out of hand the 2% wage “increase” and the company’s demand that workers foot hundreds of dollars a year in health care costs, “UAW Vice President Terry Dittes told GM that the company’s latest offer might have made it possible to reach an agreement” but it just arrived too late to avert a strike. Meanwhile, the company has refused to budge on workers’ demands to end the system of tiers, which is used not only to maximize profits but to create dissent between older and younger workers and divide the union.

… But Labor’s Gotta Play Hardball to Win!

Now, after the GM bosses announced last November the closure of two assembly and two transmissions plants, workers have walked out. It’s too many sacrifices for way too long. The UAW selected GM for a strike while Ford and Fiat Chrysler workers stay on the job: the UAW for decades has engaged in “pattern” bargaining, selecting one company to reach a deal with and then negotiating similar terms with the others. But Ford and Chrysler workers, just as ground down as those at GM, are itching to go out also. A solid nationwide Big 3 auto strike, backed up by mass picket lines and labor movement solidarity, would sock it to the auto bosses big-time. Winning major gains would also go a long way toward organizing non-union parts plants and assembly plants in the South, and toward busting the union-busting “right to work” offensive. We say: Spread the strike! Beat back all the auto bosses!

This is a hard class battle. GM reportedly has held job fairs to hire scabs to reopen assembly plants in Texas and Missouri. At many locations UAW picketers have stopped scab delivery trucks from entering the plants, often facing off against the police. Cops have arrested at least ten picketers at the Spring Hill, Tennessee, assembly plant for stopping would-be strikebreakers. The Teamsters union has announced that its 1,000 drivers who transport GM vehicles will not be hauling them to dealerships—that’s good, but not enough. Mass picket lines should ensure that nothing goes in or out of the plants.

The fundamental working-class principle – that picket lines mean don’t cross – has been gutted over the decades by sellout union bureaucrats, who play by the bosses’ rules, which invariably include injunctions against militant picketing. The UAW tops showed their contempt for this principle at the outset of the strike: when 850 UAW-represented Aramark janitorial employees who work in five GM plants in Michigan and Ohio went on strike the day before the assembly plant walkout, the UAW instructed the autoworkers to cross the janitors’ picket lines!

Many workers expressed their disgust at this. Several took personal days rather than cross the picket line. “In my opinion, crossing the picket line makes you a scab,” said Sean Crawford, a Flint Assembly auto worker who joined the janitors and then drove to Detroit to protest outside General Motors headquarters. “The picket line is sacred,” he added. “That’s the meaning of solidarity” (Detroit Free Press, 15 September). Janitors in the plant should be under the same contract as the assembly line workers, as they once were. But in any case, no one, and certainly no class-conscious worker, should never, ever cross a picket line, even if ordered to do so by union mis-leaders.

For International Labor Solidarity Action

Meanwhile, the UAW strike is affecting GM plants in Canada and Mexico. The Oshawa plant in Ontario has shut down because it ran out of parts due to the strike, while the GM engine plant in St. Catharines, Ontario is also partly shut down for lack of supplies. Militants in the Unifor union, which organizes Canadian auto workers, should fight for solidarity action in support of the UAW strikers, including walkouts at GM and other plants. Such joint struggle is all the more important since General Motors has declared that it will shut down auto production at Oshawa at the end of the year, as it opens another plant in Mexico.

Mexican GM workers, themselves toiling under grueling conditions imposed by the GM bosses, earning barely 2 dollars an hour and working 12-hour days, have in at least one plant taken a stand in solidarity with the UAW strike. A group of workers at the giant Silao plant, GM’s biggest in Mexico, met on September 15, the first day of the strike, and voted to “reject the company’s use of overtime here to make up for work lost from the strike in the United States.” In a letter to the GM strikers they said they “believe in the internationalization of our conflicts, since the boss is the same and is a multinational.” As a result of their courageous stance, on September 20, five of the workers were fired by GM. The UAW must demand, as part of any strike settlement, that the unjustly fired Mexican workers be reinstated.1

Over the last 25 years, General Motors, Ford and Fiat Chrysler in the U.S., Mexico and Canada have integrated their production chains in the framework of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which since 2017 has been replaced by the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA). These pacts have been used by the bosses to drive wages down in all three countries while subjecting Mexico to imperialist looting; they should be opposed by all anti-imperialists and defenders of labor rights. But such opposition must be on the basis of an internationalist program of workers solidarity, not poisonous nationalist protectionism.

The UAW has long called to “protect American jobs” and “buy American,” lining up U.S. workers with their bosses and pitting them against their class brothers and sisters in Mexico and elsewhere. This plays into the chauvinist demagogy of the notorious union-basher and vile immigrant-hater Donald Trump, who accuses Mexico of “taking our manufacturing jobs.” But for all his talk of forcing General Motors to reopen the Lordstown, Ohio plant and pretense of opposing GM auto production in Mexico, the plant is still shut down and manufacturing jobs have not “come back.”

Now Democratic presidential hopefuls like Biden, Warren and Bernie Sanders are visiting the picket lines to hustle votes and tout their support to the union. But make no mistake, if these phony “friend of labor” capitalist politicians get to the White House, they would continue to serve the ruling class and administer its state against the workers and oppressed, just as their Democratic predecessors Bill (NAFTA) Clinton and Barack (Bailout) Obama did. This shows yet again why labor must break with the Democrats, Republicans and all capitalist parties.

Labor Must Clean Its Own House!

As workers were preparing to walk the picket lines, the FBI suddenly launched a wave of indictments of UAW officials for embezzlement of union funds for personal luxuries. In August, the feds raided union properties and the home of officials – including past UAW president Dennis Williams and current UAW president Gary Jones – in six states. This followed the 2017-18 indictments of Fiat Chrysler executives and UAW officials involved in a bribery scheme, carried out in order to corrupt contract negotiations in favor of the company. That took the betrayals of the trade-union bureaucrats to a grotesque extreme.

The trade-union bureaucracy with its privileges accepts the framework of capitalism, the essence of which is exploitation of the workers. Therefore it inevitably opposes sharp class struggle. But the labor mis-leaders are an obstacle, sitting atop and undermining the workers organizations, while the cops are the armed fist of the class enemy, the guard dogs of capital. The FBI is the main agency of domestic capitalist repression, and the current investigation, arrests and raids have posed the possibility of a takeover of the union by the bosses’ government. When the government has moved to “clean up” the unions, and when union “reformers” have brought in the courts or the feds (Mine workers, Teamsters), it has been a disaster for the workers.

Any government intervention in the UAW, on whatever grounds, would squelch any movement by militant auto workers to forge a class-struggle leadership and must be opposed on principle. We say: Government/FBI hands off the UAW! The unions belong to the workers. Labor must clean its own house!

Today, UAW-represented workers only assemble about half of the vehicles produced in the U.S., down from 85% 20 years ago. Non-union plants have been built by international automakers primarily in the South, the historic bastion of the “open shop” and racist anti-union terror. The defeat this past June of the UAW’s second effort to organize the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, just showed the bankruptcy of the bureaucrats, who have given up so much up to the auto bosses that they have a limited force of attraction to unorganized workers.

A UAW spokesman lamented, “Our labor laws are broken.” But the purpose of the labor laws is not to help workers organize, they are meant to control the labor movement and aid the union-busters. Hard class battles like against GM won’t be won through relying on the bosses’ laws or imaginary government “neutrality,” but by relying on the power of the labor movement and its allies. The UAW and other industrial unions were built in the 1930s through often bloody class battles, and in opposition to Jim Crow segregation.

Those unions were built by “reds,” by communists and socialists who were later purged after World War II by the Democratic Party and the predecessors of today’s pro-Democratic labor officialdom. Yet what passes for opposition in the U.S. labor movement today would just replace one pro-capitalist bureaucrat with another slightly more “progressive” bureaucrat who won’t do any better because they all play by the bosses’ rules – which means the workers are sure to lose.

Thus an article on the GM strike by the social-democratic Labor Notes (18 September) – reprinted by Jacobin, an unofficial voice of the Democratic (Party) Socialists of America – has various criticisms of the lack of militancy in preparing the strike, the lack of transparency in bargaining, the corruption scandal, etc., and concludes: “if past contracts are an indication, the pact [UAW chief] Jones negotiates is likely to be weak.” So what is to be done about it? “In that case, GM strikers will have just one tool to use between their rock and their hard place: their right to vote no.” That’s it? Just say no?!

To revive the heritage of the sit-down strikes and bring it into the fight today requires ousting the labor bureaucracy as a whole and building a leadership on a program of hard class struggle rather than treacherous class collaboration. A victory to the GM strike is what’s needed to organize the mass of non-union auto workers. Reopen Lordstown Assembly – No more plant closures! And key to any real victory is to insist that no one goes back until all go back equal: junk the tier system, make “temporary” workers full-time, equal pay for equal work, now!  ■

  1. 1. The Silao workers, who call themselves “GM – Generando Movimiento” (Generating Movement), say they are fighting for union democracy and to throw out the fictitious company-imposed “union,” the CTM. This corporatist outfit and others like it have for decades been incorporated into the machinery of the Mexican capitalist state, acting as labor cops for the bosses and their government in order to prevent the rise of genuine workers unions. Now that new populist president Andrés Manuel López Obrador, known by his initials AMLO, has taken office, he has moved to set up a new government-controlled “labor” body, the CATEM (Autonomous Federation of Mexican Workers and Employees), to which some of the Silao workers have been attracted. Insurgent Mexican workers should beware that this is no more independent of the state than the CTM they are rebelling against. The head of CATEM, Pedro Haces Barba, is a former CTM leader, a superexploiting capitalist and politician in AMLO’s bourgeois party, MORENA (National Regeneration Movement), briefly serving as a senator. In an interview with El Universal (2 February), Haces declared: “As a union leader, I must not fail AMLO.”

Don’t Be Fooled by the World Scab Web Site

Then there are the scab “socialists” of David North’s “World Socialist Web Site” who are currently putting out an online Autoworker Newsletter and making supposedly leftist attacks on the UAW leaders. Auto workers should be forewarned: the WSWS imposters seek to destroy the unions. North for years was the CEO of a non-union printshop in suburban Detroit, Michigan. And they literally help the bosses. During a previous round of auto contract negotiations, the WSWS fakers (who also masquerade as the Socialist Equality Party) said they “advise workers, should the UAW come to their plant, to vote to keep it out.” (For more on this sinister outfit, see “SEP/WSWS: Scab ‘Socialists’,” The Internationalist, December 2007).  ■