The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

United States:
The Capitalists Try to Create Divisions; the Workers' Strength Is in their Unity

Dec 12, 1998

For months, General Motors has been producing reams of statistics purporting to prove that it is falling further behind in the competition which pits it against the Japanese auto companies and its two domestic rivals, Ford and Chrysler. The conclusion – of course! – is that some plants will have to be closed; others will have to be made more productive; worn-out work rules will have to be jettisoned; the number of jobs must be severely reduced. GM workers must make some sacrifices so that GM can regain its competitive edge.

From its very beginnings, capitalism has been marked by competition. The capitalist marketplace has always been marked by rivalry, by commercial wars (not to mention shooting wars, as national states sent out their armies to defend the position of their own capitalists vis a vis those from other countries). And, from the beginning, the capitalists, facing this competition and seeking to improve their own profit, used whatever divisions they could find or create among the workers to force them to accept the most miserable conditions and impoverishment. English capitalism played on the desperate situation it had created in Ireland to bring in Irish workers as scabs against the English workers. When male workers found the way to resist, the capitalists threw them out, replacing them with women and children – who had no choice but to work at lower wages. U.S. capitalism not only developed on the wealth that the slave trade and slavery produced, it was aided by the divisions among the laboring masses which slavery engendered, divisions which continued as racial ones long after slavery was abolished. U.S. capitalism further benefitted from the different waves of immigration which created an almost unlimited number of divisions within the working class.

From the beginning, the pressures which threw workers into competition with each other were one of the major problems facing the working class movement. Workers' organizations, including the unions first of all, were born of the necessity to overcome the divisions which capitalism engendered among the workers.

That necessity has not disappeared. Not only does this competition between capitalists continue today, as GM insists; the bosses play on it, trying to convince the workers to make sacrifices to help "their own" boss compete with the other bosses. GM is not the only company to do this. Nonetheless, the example of GM, along with its two U.S. rivals, is particularly striking. From the time, almost 20 years ago, when the U.S. economy was in a severe downturn and auto company profits were tumbling, up to today, after seven years of economic recovery, with GM, Ford and Chrysler all raking in enormous profits, these giant corporations have continued to resort to this same argument, which not only ties the workers to their own boss, but which also divides them from other parts of their own class.

It Began with Chrysler...

At the end of 1979, Chrysler painted a very dire picture: its plants were old and unproductive, it couldn't compete with the Japanese imports which were beginning to "flood the U.S. market," nor with Ford and GM which were still dominating it. Chrysler claimed to be "hemorrhaging money"; something must be done, and done immediately, to stanch its losses or it would go under, throwing every Chrysler worker out in the street.

Politicians ranging from Democratic President Jimmy Carter, Michigan's Republican Governor William Milliken, Detroit's Democratic Mayor Coleman Young, and a whole host of other officials, Democrat and Republican – all joined the chorus. Chrysler could no longer keep up the competition with GM and Ford. The Big 3 were about to become the Big 2. Et cetera.

The politicians rushed to come up with money – but on one condition: the "taxpayers" couldn't be expected to carry the whole load, not especially in the middle of a severe recession; everyone needed to sacrifice to bail out Chrysler. In other words, the workers must give up concessions. Give them, they did, maybe not happily, but without much sense that they had another choice.

At that time, the whole economy was starting into a steep downturn. Some workers were still on layoff from the 1974-75 recession when this new, deeper round of layoffs began. The media bombarded the workers with news about the worsening economy. Everything in the situation conspired to make it seem that the workers had no choice but to stand aside and watch their standard of living go down.

The unions certainly did not try to take the counter position. They did not argue that the workers could resist this development, which is not so automatic as everyone who turns out propaganda for the bosses would have us believe.

Not only did the UAW not contest the bosses' position, it strongly reinforced it, arguing that the workers' very jobs depended on making enough sacrifices to bail out Chrysler. The first concessions the workers gave back were their automatic annual wage increases and cost-of-living protection, plus two weeks of holidays they had only recently won. UAW officials sold those concessions by arguing that when Chrysler was able to stand on its own feet again, the workers would see their sacrifices repaid. It was, they said, a very unusual situation, and only a temporary one.

Of course, in this dog-eat-dog world where the capitalists compete with each other, it wasn't long before Ford, and then GM, the biggest of the Big 3, lined up at the same trough, to take back the same things Chrysler workers had given up to the smallest and "weakest" of the Big 3.

It was the beginning of a drive for very open concessions, which took the workers on a path which spiraled ever downwards, concession after concession, a path they are still on today. What Chrysler got, Ford and GM got, in turn. And what Ford, and then GM took from their workers, brought Chrysler back – still pretending to be on the verge of bankruptcy – to demand still more concessions. Each time, the UAW defended the bosses position.

Worst of all was the enormous increase in the intensity of work. Certainly, the downturn itself cost jobs: with sales tumbling, there were layoffs and even plant closings. But employment decreased even faster than did production. With many workers still on layoff, with the threat of more plant closings hanging over their heads, the workers submitted to an ever more severe intensity of work.

This drive for concessions spilled out to other industries, as other companies entered into competition with the auto industry. It was not a competition for sales nor for territory; it was a competition to see which company could improve its own profits and standings in the capital markets by cutting labor costs the most. That is, it was a competition to see which company and which industry could bring its own workers to give up more than the others.

The number of strikes began to tumble. In 1974, there had been more than 400 major strikes; by 1982, there were fewer than 100.

In a period of severe recession, there are objective pressures on the workers. And unemployment changes the relationship of forces between the bosses and the workers: with more and more workers looking unsuccessfully for a job, with the employed workers facing layoffs themselves, workers can feel it useless to resist.

The unions might not always be able to avoid a retreat. But they at least have to oppose the propaganda of the bosses inside the working class and to propose something which counteracts the bosses' way of raising the problem. Their policy is not neutral. If they don't counteract the bosses' ideology they reinforce it.

The policy of the UAW and the other unions went in the same direction as all the pressures coming from the situation. They enlisted their members in the war for profits which all the corporations were waging against each other and, thus, against their own workers.

It Was Only the Beginning

By the end of 1982, the economy had begun to turn a corner. Chrysler had obviously weathered the storm and was showing signs of renewed profitability. Its bank loans were repaid; its stockholders were given a sizeable token of appreciation; its executives were awarded big bonuses. Nonetheless, Chrysler came back proposing a contract which not only did not restore what the workers had given up, it demanded still further concessions, including the first real wage differential for newly-hired workers. Chrysler workers, expecting to be repaid for their sacrifices, instead faced further concessions. They voted down a proposed new contract, the first time in UAW history that a whole national contract had been voted down. The leadership maneuvered to put Canadian Chrysler UAW workers on strike, while U.S. workers continued working, watching from the sidelines. Finally, they resubmitted for a new vote the same essential contract, with a sweetener of a three percent wage increase; they also made dire predictions of what would happen to jobs if it weren't passed. Without any real organized opposition to the union leadership, the workers narrowly approved the second contract.

Production started on a new upswing, but not only did the workforce not increase, it continued to decline. The auto industry made some of its biggest jumps in productivity starting at this point. When employment finally did begin to pick up, it did so much more slowly than did production. Over the next ten years, the rate of increase in productivity at the Big 3 ran between six and seven percent a year, more than double what it had been running in the period from the early 1950s, through the end of the 1970s.

Closing down some of its steel operations, and threatening to close the rest in 1983, Ford set them up as a wholly-owned subsidiary, calling it Rouge Steel. This "new" company demanded large wage and benefit concessions, as well as work rule changes, all of which the union argued for, claiming that the workers could save their jobs only if they made enough sacrifices to overcome the precarious situation of the steel industry. In 1989, Ford handed over formal ownership to an outside consortium, which continued to operate the steel plants at Ford's Rouge complex. More concessions were demanded in exchange for the supposed good luck of finding anyone ready to run Rouge Steel for Ford. Through all these twists and turns of ownership, one thing was a constant: the continuing decline of employment.

Remembering Chrysler workers' anger against the 1982 contract, the UAW called a short strike in 1985. After this brief show of militancy, the UAW and Chrysler came to a new agreement. The UAW would not stand in the way of Chrysler's push for greater productivity. Concretely, the UAW agreed to push its local unions to accept so-called "Modern Operating Agreements," which eliminated old work rules giving the workers some protection against speed-up. Chrysler, in turn agreed to inform the UAW before it closed any more plants. Inform it did – in the very contract itself!

During this same period, after having already closed a number of its parts plants, Chrysler organized most of the rest of them into the Acustar division, which it then spun off as a separate company. Soon afterwards, it announced that Acustar was up for sale. Union officials organized a few protests at Chrysler headquarters. And Chrysler announced it would not sell Acustar. No, Chrysler didn't sell Acustar! It simply closed down or sold the individual Acustar plants one after the other, until only a very few were left. At which point, Chrysler quietly retired the Acustar name, taking back the few parts plants it wanted to keep.

During these years, Ford and Chrysler were pointing to GM's dominance of the market, and its ability to absorb costs via its much greater size; the lesser two of the Big 3 argued that they must have the flexibility to farm out more of their parts production to the so-called "independent" parts plants, which paid significantly lower wages. By the early 1990s, 70% of Chrysler s parts production was carried out by the "independents"; Ford, 50%; GM, 30%.

These new parts plants may have been formally independent companies – but they weren't "independent" of the Big 3. There were a few large independent companies which had long produced parts for the Big 3, but during the 1980s a multitude of small companies developed under the direct protection of the Big 3. In some cases, dies and presses were taken out of Chrysler plants, only to be installed inside the building of a newly-constituted company. This new company continued the same production. The main difference was that it was being put out by workers paid significantly lower wages. In other cases, everything – building, machinery and, in effect, workers – were sold to these new companies for a nominal price. The one thing that didn't transfer were wages and benefits; they were reduced.

Organizational Problems for the UAW

The Big 3 were shifting production to companies that were already non-union, or to newly set up companies. These companies were not willing to extend union recognition to new plants as the Big 3 had done almost automatically. And the union itself devoted very few resources to try to organize these new plants. Moreover, the workers at these plants, often the very same workers who had lost their jobs at the Big 3 and been shifted over to the new plants along with the work, were in some cases hostile to the UAW for not having opposed this process. In any case, the independent parts plant workers didn't see much advantage in taking the risk involved in trying to set up a union in their new plant. Union membership took a serious decline.

Having watched this decline in membership for over a decade while the Big 3 shifted production to the "independents," the UAW in 1996 made the Big 3 an offer it couldn't refuse: the companies could pay lower wages at their parts plants, new or established, on the condition that these Big 3 plants did work which didn't compete with "already existing work." Wages could be set at lower levels which would be "competitive" with the "independents." The UAW argued that not only would this stop the continuing drain out of Big 3 plants, it would even bring jobs back from the independents into the Big 3, and it would increase UAW membership. The companies saw no reason to refuse. Ford even went further, offering to encourage all of the independents from which it bought parts to recognize the union – at lower wage rates, of course.

This may have increased union dues – and even this is not so sure. So far the union has not claimed any real increase in membership coming from this agreement. In any case, there has been no rush of parts plant jobs back into Ford and Chrysler, nor even a little trickle. Just the opposite. GM is now proposing to "spin off" its whole Delphi parts division as a separate and independent company, just as Chrysler once did with Acustar. Clearly the offer to accept lower wages hasn't slowed down GM's drive to cut more jobs. On the other hand, this agreement clearly did create a new framework which allows the Big 3 to pay lower wages for the parts they want to keep "in-house."

All of this has reinforced the idea that Big 3 workers are in competition with the workers in the independent parts plants. The union's propaganda has brought many Big 3 workers to view the workers at the "independents" as competitors, much in the same way as in earlier years they were convinced to view Japanese workers as their competitors. As for the workers in the independent parts plants – the UAW's recent proposals to bring work back to the Big 3 certainly won't make them more friendly to the UAW, which now seems to be trying to take their jobs away. Today, you can even hear some of these low-paid workers complain that Big 3 workers are "overpaid" and deserve to lose their jobs.

"Working Together for Quality" – and the Corporations' Profits

Chrysler and, with it, the rest of the auto industry have long since come back to health – if they ever were sick. But not only have most of the wage and benefit sacrifices which were imposed, starting almost twenty years ago, continued on as part of current contracts, most of the jobs lost during the downturn have not been returned, even now today, with production at record high levels.

From 1978 to 1996, hourly employment at the Big 3 went from about 760,000 jobs to 390,000. And yet the Big Three auto companies are today putting out more total vehicles domestically than they were 20 years ago. This competition between the three companies has served them well.

Despite the assurances of the union bureaucrats, not only did the workers not regain what they gave up, they continue, even today, to cede more to the bosses. What blocks the workers today is not the objective situation. It's the perspective the union bureaucrats have long fought for, and continue to fight for, inside the working class.

In recent months, an advertisement has made the rounds of Detroit radio stations. Voices, pretending to be happy Ford workers, proclaim that "Pride in the work we've done is part of the finished product, a Ford Motor Company Product. When we're satisfied with the job we've done, we end up with a satisfied customer, and that makes everybody happy. And who could complain about that – except maybe the competition. We're UAW Ford, working together for quality."

Certainly, there is a competition between Ford, GM and Chrysler, not to mention all the imports and "transplants," but this stupid little ad also reflects the competition which the UAW has helped sow among the auto workers, those in the Big 3 and those outside, a competition which has worked to lower wages and working conditions for almost 20 years.

For a number of years now, the UAW has reproached GM for not entertaining the same friendly relations which the UAW says it enjoys with the other two companies, especially with Ford. And yet, it is at Ford where the drive for greater intensity of work has gone the furthest. It's difficult to measure productivity very accurately, but no one disputes the fact that Ford has managed to get enormously more work out of its work force than has GM. Globally, Ford produced almost as much revenue as GM did, with less than half as many employees. Undoubtedly, Ford is happy to have such a friendly relationship with a union which is ready to throw its workers in competition with other workers.

A Battle Which Was Lost Before It Was Begun

Over this last summer, two important strikes broke out in Flint Michigan, in the heart of GM's empire, when it seemed as though the two plants might soon be closed. The strikes, which lasted eight and seven weeks, respectively, took place at the Flint Metal Plant and the Flint Delphi East Plant, two plants which GM has long complained aren't "competitive." That is, according to a GM executive quoted by The New York Times, "the company must reduce its labor costs to start earning a competitive return on its shareholders' investment."

These two strikes closed down almost all of GM s North American plants for more than a month. At the end, however, GM effectively ceded nothing, other than what it had been demanding of the UAW before the strikes began. The agreement which settled the two strikes called on GM to keep the Delphi East plant open – or at least until January 1, 2000 – and to invest more money in the Flint Metal Plant. But GM s pledge was contingent on the UAW s agreement to help GM "fix all its unprofitable product lines" and also to enforce a 15% increase in production rates at the Flint Metal Plant. According to the summary the UAW passed out to the Flint Metal workers, "The parties agree that the overall improvement of the competitive position of the Flint Metal Center is of paramount importance."

Just look at where the unions' policies have brought us. We have the spectacle of GM, the world's biggest company in terms of sales and economic output, talking about the need to overtake Ford and Chrysler. While GM had a couple of years in the late 1980s and early '90s when its balance sheet showed either negligible profits or even losses, its net profits over the past five years have totaled 26 billion dollars, and its revenues are greater than the GDP of all but 24 countries. But even facing this enormously wealthy GM, the UAW doesn't dispute the idea that the company must become more "competitive," and that the workers must make sacrifices to help GM overtake its competitors if they are to save their jobs.

When UAW leaders say they are saving jobs by helping the companies to become more competitive, they are admitting – whether they say it or not – that they are ready to sacrifice the jobs of part of their members in order to save the jobs of the rest. And that is exactly what happened. In order to maintain 370,000 good-paying jobs at the Big 3, the UAW sacrificed 390,000 other good-paying jobs at the Big 3 – not to mention agreeing to lower the level of pay that all Big 3 workers once had. In other words, they take exactly the same position as the bosses.

This way of raising the question has not been confined just to the UAW, of course. The current issue of America@Work, the AFL-CIO journal, for example, carries an article entitled, "If It's a Productive Workplace, It Must Be Union." The purpose of the article is to explain how much more productive a union workplace is, that is, although the article doesn't mention it, how many fewer workers can put out the same amount of work. Obviously, the UAW is not the only union to have lost better-paying jobs in its traditional industries; almost every unionized workplace is "more productive," that is, run by fewer workers.

Of course, no one can say that the UAW or other unions had the strength to prevent everything that has happened. Unless the working class is ready to fight, there can be no possibility of throwing back the bosses' demands for sacrifices.

What is criminal is not that the UAW and other unions didn't prevent the sacrifices; what's criminal is that the UAW and the others said the sacrifices were necessary, that the workers could protect their jobs only if they agreed to cooperate with their own boss. You can't always fight and win, but you don't have to prostitute yourself to the bosses. They already have enough prostitutes in the bourgeois media, defending their position every single day. For the union leaders to join them, pushing in the same direction, simply reinforces the bosses' ideology inside the working class.

Needed: A Return to the "Old" Ideas of the Class Struggle

Already, at the time of the First International, Marx had discussed the divisions that capitalism directly or indirectly introduces into the workers' movement. Writing, in 1866, about the activity of the First International itself, Marx explained:

"The whole activity of the International Association ... aims at combining and generalising the till now disconnected efforts for emancipation by the working classes in different countries.

"To counter the intrigues of capitalists always ready, in cases of strikes and lockouts, to misuse the foreign workman as a tool against the native workman, is one of the particular functions which our Society has hitherto performed with success. It is one of the great purposes of the Association to make the workmen of different countries not only feel but act as brethren and comrades in the army of emancipation."

Further, Marx explained the role of the trade unions in the following way:

"The only social power of the workmen is their number. The force of numbers, however, is broken by disunion. The disunion of the workmen is created and perpetuated by their unavoidable competition amongst themselves. Trades' Unions originally sprung up from the spontaneous attempts of workmen at removing or at least checking that competition, in order to conquer such terms of contract as might raise them at least above the condition of mere slaves....

Considering themselves and acting as the champions and representatives of the whole working class, they cannot fail to enlist the non-society men into their ranks. They must look carefully after the interests of the worst paid trades, such as the agricultural labourers, rendered powerless by exceptional circumstances. They must convince the world at large that their efforts, far from being narrow and selfish, aim at the emancipation of the downtrodden millions."

The principal problem with the unions today is that they don't fight in the interest of the whole working class. In this country, no union has even proposed to do so since the effective end of the IWW in the early years of this century.

Certainly, the unions have tried to defend their own members. And for a whole period, the AFL unions, and even many of the CIO unions, were able, by establishing a kind of monopoly in their trade or industry not only to defend their members situation, but to improve it, and even to improve it markedly.

In a country as rich as this one is, whose wealth has been stolen from the labor of working people around the whole world, the capitalists could afford to pay a little more to buy off a fraction, at least, of their own working class. In the first few decades after World War II, with American capitalism extending its tentacles around the whole world, the bourgeoisie preferred to pay a little more – when facing workers who were ready to fight – in order to have labor peace.

But such gains are not won forever. When the relationship of forces changes, becoming more unfavorable to the workers, the bosses will come to take back whatever they are able to take. For the last 20 years, the advantages that the unions once gained for their members have encouraged the bosses to try to take back those advantages – or even to get rid of the slightly better-off workers. Today, the bosses outsource skilled trades work to low-paying job shops; they replace higher paid workers in heavy industry with less well-paid workers at small plants; permanent workers with temporary workers; full-time workers with part-time workers.

Of course, the bosses are always ready to play on whatever gaps exist between different parts of the working class. The problem is that the unions, instead of confronting this attempt to divide the working class, lead their own members to believe that they can defend themselves only by competing against other workers.

Older auto workers can remember back almost 20 years when the UAW began to raise the issue of imports, and specifically Japanese imports. The result of this campaign was to convince U.S. auto workers that their jobs were being taken by Japanese workers who were ready to work faster and work for less than U.S. workers did. More recently, with the development of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the UAW and other unions carry on propaganda which makes U.S. workers believe that low-paid Mexican workers are taking "their" jobs.

It isn't a big step from that for Big 3 workers to consider the workers at the "independent" parts plants as their enemies, and then – why not – for workers at Ford to consider GM and Chrysler workers as "the competition."

Of course, it's logical that the bosses would explain their problems this way. They aren't in the habit of taking responsibility for the problems their own system creates. But for the unions to point at other companies and thereby, at least implicitly, at other workers, is to bring the logic of the capitalists into the workers' movement.

What's to keep it from going further? If Ford workers are in competition with GM workers, than quite obviously, there's nothing to stop Ford workers at two different assembly plants from competing with each other to get a new Ford model put into their plant. It should be no surprise that we've already seen this, with two or three different plants trying to outbid each other, each in the interests of saving "their own" jobs. It's not a big step from that to see individual workers compete with each other for a slightly better job, or for the right to work more overtime! The whole logic of this approach leads the workers to compete with each other at every level, instead of trying to combine with each other to defend their common interests.

Today, an ever-increasing part of the American working class is not organized – less than ten percent of all workers in private industry are in unions. This decline is one consequence of the unions having defended the interests of only one part of the working class. To the extent that they present the interests of their own members as being in opposition to those of other parts of the working class, the union bureaucrats have helped create a resentment on the part of those other workers who feel ignored or even discarded by the unions. Starting from that resentment, it's not a long step for non-organized workers to actually oppose the unions. And that weakens the whole working class.

The role of the conscious working class movement is to fight against the fatalistic acceptance of the bosses position inside the working class, and first of all against the idea that one part of the working class can benefit at the expense of another part of the working class. The working class movement has to come back to what Marx and Engels fought for when they helped build the First International: a policy which starts from trying to defend the interests of the whole working class, that is, to the ideas of the class struggle. Only if the organized workers' movement once again tries to take this path can it really defend any part of the working class.

The main strength of the workers has always been their unity as a class. Up to the point that capitalism is destroyed, the working class movement will continue to come up against the attempt of the capitalists to create disunity inside and even decomposition of the workers' movement. To fight against the disunity which capitalism brings is the main, and never ending fight of the conscious working class movement. It is a fight the workers' movement will have to make over and over again.