by Ben Solidaridad
Some 2,900 auto workers at the Volvo trucks plant in Dublin, Virginia are once again on strike after walking off the job for nearly two weeks in April, returning to work, and then voting down by wide margins two contracts negotiated by their union, the United Auto Workers (UAW). The current struggle at Volvo has been ongoing since February, when contract negotiations between the company and union began. Throughout this entire period, workers have maintained their solidarity and steadfast determination to win a better deal from the bosses and beat back years of concessions from previous contracts, including a much-hated two-tier wage structure in place at the plant.
Compared to the 13-day strike in April, this time around management has adopted a harder line against the strike. The bosses have cut off workers’ healthcare and are actively encouraging workers to cross the picket line. In addition, the company has carried out a “survey” of property lines around the plant and marked these lines in front of the facility. The point of this is to push the striking workers closer to the road and undermine the workers’ ability to stage an effective picket line. In the process, this has also made the picket line more dangerous for strikers. Beyond that, Virginia State Police have pressured and threatened the union to stop workers from blocking scabs from entering the plant. A Tuesday post on the UAW Local 2069 Facebook page notes that, “The State Police has informed us to not block the entrances of the plant. We do not want to see anyone get in trouble and we want law enforcement to stay neutral in this process. Do not cross the picket line. Many places are hiring. Take care of your union brothers and sisters on the line and make sure they do not overheat.”
In response to this, it must be said that law enforcement is never neutral when workers enter into struggle. The police are on the side of the bosses, and their efforts to facilitate scabbing at the Volvo plant are just the latest example in a long history of strikebreaking and other attacks on workers.
As it is, Volvo workers are now once again in the middle of a high-stakes struggle with a multi-billion-dollar company. The entire labor movement and the socialist movement have an obligation to support these workers and shine a light on their vitally important fight, which has ramifications for the entire class struggle.
On Sunday, June 6, the workers voted for the second time in less than a month to reject a tentative agreement negotiated by the company and the International UAW by a margin of 91 percent for salary language and 90 percent for common language. This surpassed the previous rejection of a tentative agreement on May 16, when workers turned down that contract’s salary language by 83 percent.
Following the most recent contract rejection, UAW Secretary-Treasurer and director of the union’s Heavy Duty truck department, Ray Curry, sent a public letter to Volvo management on Monday declaring that the union would walk off the job later that day.
The strike targets a critical point in Volvo’s supply chain, with the April walkoff shutting down production at what is Volvo’s only truck production facility in all of North America at a time of booming demand for Volvo trucks and commercial vehicles more generally. The initial strike at Volvo ended on April 30 when UAW officials announced that the union had reached a new tentative agreement with the company and that workers would return to work the following week. As reported in last month’s edition of On the Picket Line, this arrangement was made despite the fact that striking workers had not been allowed to see or discuss, let alone vote upon, the tentative agreement negotiated on their behalf.
As it turned out, the initial tentative agreement that followed April’s strike was filled with what many workers felt were unacceptable concessions and failed to address the core grievances that led workers to strike in the first place. Notably, the problematic content of the contract was only brought to light as a result of the organized efforts of rank-and-file members. The proposed contract was not put online, but members obtained copies of the agreement from the union hall and circulated the proposal to their coworkers in the plant, according to a report from Labor Notes.
In terms of the content of the tentative agreement, workers were angered to learn that the deal failed to abolish the hated two-tier wage system in place at the plant. In addition, the contract included significant increases to out-of-pocket health care costs for workers. Language in the contract also enabled union officials to agree to a so-called Alternative Work Schedule, including “four 10-hour days, alternative shift operations, or other alternative schedules based on the needs of business.” This proposed scheme may abolish time-and-a-half pay for work after eight hours. Notably, such alternative schedules – which have already been implemented at many Big 3 auto plants across the country – are beneficial to management as they allow companies to boost productivity and cut wage costs by paying less in overtime.
According to a worker interviewed by Labor Notes, the successful “no” vote was largely organized through word of mouth and face-to-face discussions by workers. In addition, online discussions and campaigning in a private Facebook group with some 1,900 members also factored into the contract rejection.
Following the initial “no” vote, the next development in the contract struggle came just four days later when, on May 20, the UAW announced that it had arrived at a new tentative agreement with the company. In the press release published by the union international, Ray Curry heralded the new deal and declared that, “the agreement addresses [the] concerns” of rank-and-file members that voted down the previous contract. Many rank-and-file members, in contrast, argued that the new contract did not meaningfully improve on the previous deal. This point was made clear in a rank-and-file petition released the same day as the announcement of the new tentative agreement. The petition – which was circulated as a flyer, posted online, and subsequently reported on in a news segment by the local Fox affiliate, WFXR – denounced the proposed agreement as “almost identical to the previous agreement.” The petition also called for the recall and replacement of union officials.
The resounding contract rejection on June 6 made it clear that workers are not willing to give up their struggle and accept the company’s terms for a new contract. Thus, by their determination, members have pressured their union to continue the fight. This success was made possible by a vigorous rank-and-file movement within the union that, at times, has come to take on the character of a struggle for union democracy. This dynamic will undoubtedly persist as the union fights the company on the picket line.
Notably, workers’ eagerness to fight the company is connected to the fortuitous economic situation at Volvo right now. While Volvo, like all multinational auto companies, has been impacted by the global shortage of semiconductor chips used as component parts at assembly plants, production demand for new heavy duty trucks is currently skyrocketing. The trade publication FleetOwner has reported that, as of March, monthly North American orders for the Class 8 truck produced at the plant had exceeded the company’s productive capacity for the previous six months. Meanwhile, the head of the commercial transportation consulting firm ACT Research has declared that “Demand for commercial vehicles in North America is about as good as we’ve seen in 35 years of monitoring heavy-duty market conditions. Times are so good that demand is far outrunning the industry’s ability to supply right now, and that will likely remain the case into the autumn and perhaps even through the winter.”
Volvo is also making money hand over fist. On June 1, Volvo announced that it would be providing a $2.3 billion dividend payment to the company’s investors. As Volvo CEO Martin Lundstedt announced in a statement, “The board believes that the Volvo Group’s improved profitability, resilience in downturns and strong financial position enable a distribution of the proceeds. Even after the distribution, the group is financially strong with resources to invest in future technology.” Clearly, the bosses have the money to meet workers’ demands – and their claims of poverty during contract negotiations have been entirely fraudulent.
On top of these conditions, the Volvo plant in Virginia has been massively expanding in recent years. According to statements by the company, the Volvo trucks plant is in the middle of a $400 million expansion and upgrade. Since 2016, the plant has added some 1,100 additional jobs – and it plans to add some 600 more during the course of 2021. As already noted, the Virginia plant is Volvo’s only North American production facility, which means that a protracted strike at the plant could completely choke off the sale and delivery of new Volvo trucks for the entire continent.
Within this context, some workers have asked: If not now, then when? If we don’t fight to win back previous concessions and smash the two-tier wage system right now, then when in the future will be a better time?
Notably, what happens with the struggle at Volvo has implications not only for the thousands of workers employed at Volvo, but potentially for the broader workers’ movement, as well.
In the past several years, a movement for union democracy and a full-scale revival of the UAW’s proud tradition of militancy has developed within the ranks of the union. This movement has taken shape within the context of a protracted federal investigation into widespread corruption within the top ranks of the UAW bureaucracy. On top of this, UAW workers have grown weary of international union officials’ propensity for cozying up to the bosses and implementing company demands for concessions.
An internal caucus, Unite All Workers for Democracy (UAWD) has been organized by rank-and-file members with the goal of rebuilding the type of militant, class-conscious movement of auto workers that is capable of taking on the auto bosses. The UAWD is campaigning for members to vote yes in a referendum, which will take place within the next six months, that would allow rank-and-file members to directly elect the union’s executive board and president. The upcoming vote is stipulated in a consent decree agreement between federal prosecutors and UAW officials stemming from the corruption probe. UAWD activists have portrayed the campaign to win a “One member, One vote” election system as a fight to “win a more democratic system of electing our International officers [that] would allow for every member’s voice to be equally heard.”
On a political level, the fight for trade union democracy is inseparable from the struggle to transform the unions into fighting organs of the working class. This is a point long upheld within the Marxist movement. In his incisive 1940 essay “Trade Unions in the Epoch of Imperialist Decay,” Leon Trotsky argues that “It is necessary to adapt ourselves to the concrete conditions existing in the trade unions of every given country in order to mobilize the masses not only against the bourgeoisie but also against the totalitarian regime within the trade unions themselves and against the leaders enforcing this regime.” He adds, “The primary slogan for this struggle is: complete and unconditional independence of the trade unions in relation to the capitalist state. This means a struggle to turn the trade unions into the organs of the broad exploited masses and not the organs of a labor aristocracy.”
Volvo Workers Back on Strike at Virginia Trucks Plant
by Ben Solidaridad