Is the GM contract a win for labor?

Oct. 2019 UAW (Jim West:Zuma Wire)By JIM FARRELL

On Oct. 17, the United Autoworkers Union (UAW) announced an agreement with General Motors after a month-long strike. Voting by the membership will conclude on Friday, Oct. 25.

Picket lines will remain in place while members vote on the pact, which includes some gains for GM workers. However, the four-year contract is not a decisive win for the workers. The union has been pushing for more production to take place in the U.S. but the agreement allows the company to shutter GM facilities in Michigan, Ohio, and Maryland. The Lordstown, Ohio, plant will not reopen, a demand that President Trump made earlier this year.

Contracting out jobs in certain plants and the hiring of temporary workers will remain at the discretion of GM.

The agreement includes 3 percent raises for the first two years and 4% lump sum payments for the last two. Workers will receive a ratification bonus of $9000 while temps will get a $3000 signing bonus. Newly hired permanent production workers, called “in progression” workers, who make up about 35% of production workers, will get a shorter path to full pay. Currently, in progression workers must work eight years at a lower rate, starting at $17/hr, before reaching the top pay of $30 hourly.

The pact also uncaps profit sharing, which has been limited to $12,000 annually. The formula for profit sharing is $1000 for every $1 billion in profits. Health-care costs will remain the same at 3%. The contract also includes a provision for $60,000 in retirement buyouts for up to 2000 higher-paid production and 60 skilled trades workers who opt to retire between Dec. 31, 2019 and Feb. 28, 2020.

Under the proposed settlement, temporary workers, who work for substantially lower wages and without benefits, must still work three years “uninterrupted” to qualify for full-time status. This is a major loophole for the company to continue to exploit the temps. The implication of the wording is that a temp who is temporarily laid off will have to start from zero.

Aramark workers, who perform janitorial and maintenance services in GM facilities and went on strike one day before autoworkers, are still not close to a deal with management. This raises the possibility of GM workers crossing their picket lines once the contract is approved. GM workers had crossed Aramark workers lines the day before their own strike commenced.

Historic strike

At midnight on Sept. 15, the UAW contract with GM expired and almost 50,000 workers downed tools and walked off the job at 55 facilities in 10 states. Days after the strike began, more than 4500 workers in Canada were laid off due to parts shortages.

A parts shortage has affected production, forcing the closure on Oct. 19 of the Ramos Arizpe plant in Mexico, which builds the 2020 Chevy Blazer. Parts shortages have also hit dealerships. During the course of the strike, GM has lost more than $1 billion dollars—roughly $90 million daily.

During the recession, the UAW and its members agreed to deep concessions to keep GM afloat. Now, GM is prospering and CEO Mary Barra is one of the highest paid executives in the U.S., with a total compensation package of almost $22 million annually—281 times the median salary of a GM employee.

Meanwhile, workers are subjected to two-tier wages and threats to their pensions and health care. The company cut off workers’ health care just a few days into the strike and reinstated it on Sept. 26. One GM worker in Langhorne, Pa., told Socialist Resurgence, “How can people live like this? It’s wrong.”

The solidarity between established and more recently hired workers against the two-tier is a sign of a shift in class consciousness. The GM strike reportedly caused workers at Ford and Fiat-Chrysler to advocate for a walkout in solidarity with GM workers. Teamsters, Steelworkers, Communications Workers, and other unions demonstrated solidarity with strikers and shown up at the picket lines. The Teamsters union announced that its drivers would not deliver cars to GM dealerships, but non-union independent truckers and FEDEX drivers have not honored picket lines.

Eleven GM strikers were arrested on Sept. 18 at the Spring Hill, Tenn. plant for blocking a scab truck. GM also threatened to reopen assembly plants in Arlington, Texas, and Wentzville, Missouri, with scabs. There were several incidents of strikers being hit by scab vehicles. This writer witnessed a nonunion delivery truck drive through the line at the GM parts warehouse in Langhorne, Pa.—almost running down several strikers.

On Oct. 1, the UAW notified members that the latest offer from GM was unacceptable. UAW lead negotiator Terry Dittes said, “This proposal that the company provided to us on day 15 of the strike did not satisfy your contract demands or needs. There were many areas that came up short like health care, wages, temporary employees, skilled trades and job security to name a few.” After more than two weeks on strike, workers began to receive $250 in weekly strike pay. The UAW voted to raise strike pay to $275 per week and allowed strikers to take part-time jobs without loss of strike pay.

Temporary workers: a major issue

One of the contentious issues in the strike is the hiring of temporary workers, who, despite being union members, work for half the hourly wage of permanent workers, and with fewer benefits. There was no clearly laid-out path for temps to become permanent employees. The hiring of temps was one of the concessions given to the three main U.S. automakers during the Great Recession.

One GM worker, John Ryan Bishop, a UAW member and former temp, told the Detroit Free Press, “As a temp you’re doing the same work as the other people and making half the wages, and you don’t get profit sharing, and you feel like you contributed just as much to this and you don’t reap the award…” Temp workers also don’t qualify for participation in the 401K retirement program.

Speaking at a strike rally in Langhorne, Pa., on Sept. 28, a Local 2177 officer said, “One thing I want to say is that General Motors totally miscalculated this strike. They totally did not think that the UAW was going to come together like they did. … All across the country, including our local union, this strike has brought us all closer together.”

He went on to discuss the issue of temps: “One of the big issues is the temporary employees. Some of the employees, temporary employees, are doing the same exact job as people making the full rate. It’s wrong. They get no benefits, no bonuses.”

The restructuring of auto

For decades, autoworkers have been under attack by the Detroit-based “Big Three,” who blamed foreign competition and lack of worker productivity for their troubles. The UAW has been a willing accomplice by supporting labor-management cooperation schemes and workplace restructuring. Automation, increased use of outsourcing, the increased number of temps, and downsizing have changed the auto industry.

A 2008 article in Labor Notes pointed out, “… the UAW’s deal with the auto makers was this: do whatever you need to do to boost profits, as long as you maintain the wages and benefits of (a steadily shrinking number of) workers at the Big Three. That “whatever” included lean production, outsourcing to nonunion parts plants at home and abroad, the sale of GM’s and Ford’s parts divisions in 1999 and 2000 (lopping off 52,000 workers) and, today, buyouts. There were 466,000 GM hourly workers in 1978 and in 2006, 112,000” (“End of the Road: If the Auto Industry is Dead What does that Mean for Workers?”).

Another factor in the decline of the UAW is the growth of non-union plants in the South, as well as the spread of right-to-work laws in the Midwest. Five states in the Midwest contain the majority of Big Three operations—Kentucky, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin—and since 2011, all but Ohio have become right-to-work states. In 2018, UAW membership declined by 35,000, but the number of autoworkers in these states increased by almost 160,000 since 2011.

Distrust of a class-collaborationist union bureaucracy is most certainly a factor in the failure of organizing drives in the South. Why would you trust a union that clearly has sold out the interests of members? The corruption and lack of backbone of the union bureaucrats is one explanation for the number of UAW members who have quit in right-to-work states.

A surge in workers’ struggles

The increased combativity among workers is manifested in an uptick in strike activity and organizing. The teachers’ strikes in various states caused increased excitement and awareness of unions.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, “In 2018, there were 20 major work stoppages involving 485,000 workers. … The number of major work stoppages beginning in 2018 was the highest since 2007 (21 major work stoppages). The number of workers involved was the highest since 1986. … Educational services and health care and social assistance industry groups accounted for over 90 percent” of idled workers.

In July, nonunion coal miners in Kentucky began a protest against their former employer, Blackjewel LLC, by blocking a railroad track that carries coal trains, demanding back pay after being laid off. Blackjewel had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on July 1, leaving 1700 miners and their families in dire straits. Many of these workers had voted for Trump because of his promise to revitalize the coal industry. These workers’ decision to take collective action, and the support given by the surrounding community and the labor movement, shows the potential for the mobilization and self-organization of workers. The blockaders abandoned their protest on Sept. 26, but the coal trains have not moved pending a court decision.

 Back to the future: The need for a class-struggle fightback

The UAW bureaucracy, wracked by accusations of corruption, has repeatedly sold out their members and other industry workers in the past. What is needed is a clear, class-struggle upsurge by rank-and-file autoworkers.

To achieve their demands, the union must decisively strike to win. The UAW should take a page from the past history of the union and lead an all-out strike against the auto bosses. This includes mass blockades and occupations if necessary. The Blackjewel miners offered an important lesson by obstructing the railways leading out of the mine. An increasingly dissatisfied and combative working class would follow the lead of such militant strike actions.

In recent days, various Democrats running for president have shown up at picket lines to declare their solidarity, but they have done very little to mobilize their voting base to join the lines.

In 2007, Obama said: “Understand this: If American workers are being denied their right to organize and collectively bargain, when I’m in the White House, I’ll put on a comfortable pair of shoes myself. I’ll walk on that picket line with you, as president of the United States of America.” Despite his promises, however, Obama did very little for union members, and his policies favored the interests of the ruling rich. During his campaign, Obama promised to fight for the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), which was quickly forgotten.

The Democrats, who like to portray themselves as “friends of labor” during election cycles, are, in fact, enforcers for the class enemy on Wall Street. Militant unions cannot fight for their members alone. The labor movement’s subordination to the Democrats must end. What is needed is a combined struggle to build a Labor Party based on fighting unions.

Photo: Jim West / Zuma Wire




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