Oct 21, 2006
Within a little more than a year, the big auto companies, allied with leaders of the auto workers union (UAW), blew up the basic cornerstones governing wages, pensions and working conditions in the auto industry.
Starting last October 2005, GM and top UAW leaders – with Ford soon following suit – negotiated a concession in the middle of the contract requiring current retirees to pay more for their medical insurance. Relatively speaking the amount might not have been that great, but the principle was. Once they’ve done it once, they can do it again. And they dumped retiree medical care into an account with no guarantees – it can run out any time.
Every retiree who ever walked out the door had been led to believe that their pensions and medical benefits tied to them were theirs “for life.” The companies even inscribed those words on the papers they gave retirees.
For life? No more!
Chrysler had already begun the campaign to change work rules, followed by Delphi and its parent GM, then by Ford. Pitting workers against each other, union officials argued that if you don’t accept the new work rules, workers at other Chrysler (or GM or Ford ) plants will – their plants will stay open, and they will keep their jobs. If YOU don’t go along, YOUR plant will close.
In fact, the very purpose of these work rules changes was to close plants and cut jobs.
The new rules call for running plants as close to 24/7 as their machines will bear, reducing the obligation for overtime pay and/or break times. If the companies get away with it – if they can run some plants flat out – then, of course, they will be able to close other plants.
The new rules eliminate classifications, requiring workers to pick up the job of their fellow workers who aren’t there. If the companies get away with that, yes, they will be able to cut jobs, squeezing more work out of fewer workers.
Closed plants, lost jobs, deadly working conditions – those will be the consequences of the agreements that were supposed to “save jobs,” at least, if workers go along with them.
With union leaders doing their best to scare workers about their future, GM then Ford dangled “buyouts” in front of every worker. At first glance, it looked like some money – up to $135,000 at GM and $140,000 at Ford.
That’s nothing! Once workers calculated the deals, they realized that most of them would give up more than they would gain. That’s why some local union leaders continue a scare campaign to this day, whispering to workers that their plant might close, so better take the deal.
It’s a rotten deal – but there’s an even worse one hidden behind the buyout: companies were given the right to hire much lower-paid temporaries for several years to replace the workers they had pushed out the door. Tossing aside workers making $28 an hour and benefits, the companies could replace them with workers at much lower wages, and few if any benefits – this was the real deal here. Delphi now hires permanent workers for $14 an hour, and wants to go down to $10. GM has even let it be known that it would like to get future wages in its plants down to around $12 an hour.
Workers are being asked to toss themselves in the trash, so the companies can hire their children and their grandchildren at sweat-shop wages – that’s the simple meaning of the buyout.
Other workers have seen some of these cutbacks and concessions, most notably in steel and the airlines. But those attacks were carried out by companies declaring bankruptcy. Undoubtedly, most of the steel and airline bankruptcies were frauds – almost all the bankrupt steel companies and airlines kept on working, accumulating more money and paying out even higher wages to execs than before. The aim of bankruptcy was simply to reduce workers’ wages and benefits and conditions.
GM, Ford and Chrysler didn’t even bother with the farce of bankruptcy. Do they believe they can get away with any outrageous deal, no matter how blatant? Apparently! And if they get away with it, other companies will rush to follow.
The point of all these concessions is to get the workers to compete with each other for an ever fewer number of jobs, for ever dwindling wages. It’s nothing but a race to the bottom.
The name of this new kind of agreement says it all: “Competitive Operating Agreement.” The companies and the union leadership pushed those agreements on workers in a way that isolates them from each other, plant against plant, shift against shift, worker against worker.
Workers formed unions precisely to avoid confronting the company alone, to increase their strength, to rest on the combined forces of their fellow workers. Their ability to fight for better conditions was based on organization, unity and solidarity, not on competition with each other.
The top leadership of the UAW and other unions long ago gave up any commitment to solidarity, not to mention strength in the face of the bosses. They pretend workers have only two choices: go along with company demands for lower wages, benefits and working conditions – or give up their jobs.
No, there’s another choice. And that is to fight for everything workers need: wages, benefits, working conditions – AND their jobs.
Workers don’t have to face the bosses alone. There are workers who have already shown themselves ready to oppose this race to the bottom. At GM and Ford, they organized opposition to the concession reducing health care benefits for retirees, who weren’t even allowed a vote. At Chrysler, workers opposed the change in work rules, and, where those rules were pushed through despite the workers’ decision, the workers’ resistance has kept them from really being implemented. At Delphi and GM and Ford, there were workers who exposed the buyouts for the scam they are.
At Northwest and other airlines, there are workers who continue to fight. Northwest to this day can’t get its schedule going on time, or promise even that a flight will take off. In steel, even the retirees organized to demand recognition.
Stand alone? No, workers can trust in the strength they have when united.