The Spark

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

Auto:
The Course of the Fight against the 2007 Contracts

Nov 13, 2007

Over the past 35 years the capitalist class has carried out an unremitting attack on the working class, gradually taking a greater and greater share of the wealth produced in this country to the point that today they hold as big a share of the wealth as they did in 1928, just before the Wall Street crash that ushered in the Great Depression.

The workers who have paid the biggest price so far are those in non-union industries. Nonetheless, some unionized workers, most notably steelworkers and workers in the airline industry, have already come under harsh attack. But up until now, the auto workers – or at least those working at GM, Ford and Chrysler plants – have maintained most of what they once had won over decades of struggle. Big Business hesitated to directly take on what has always been considered the strongest and most organized section of the working class.

Instead, the so-called “Big 3” gradually sold off or spun off part after part of the companies that had once produced the whole car – from the steel and glass going into it, to the production of most of its parts, all the way to the final assembly of all its parts. And they nickled and dimed the workers left at “Big 3” plants, taking a little concession here, a slightly bigger one there. One auto industry analyst called it, “a slow death by a thousand tiny cuts.”

By contrast, the 2007 auto negotiations were a real blood-bath. The contracts that came out of them were an open overthrow of the basic wage system, benefits and working conditions that had been preserved in auto for decades.

The companies did not impose these enormous concessions alone. They needed and got help from the leadership of the UAW, the auto workers union, a vice-president of which had declared, a year before negotiations began, “We have made a conscious choice to put aside the adversarial approach....There are no sacred cows in terms of old practices and old strategies.” (Bob King, speaking to an automotive conference in Detroit, sponsored by the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, in April 2006.)

The UAW leadership long ago gave up any idea of an “adversarial” relationship to the companies. The last company-wide strike before the 2-day strike at GM, and the 6-hour strike at Chrysler, was 31 years ago. Instead of opposition, the UAW leadership has engaged itself in a partnership with the companies, claiming it was the only way for the workers to defend their interests. In reality, this partnership could only be carried out against the workers’ interests. That has been obvious long before now, but the current contracts make it painfully clear.

A Contract Betraying the Older Generations

Retirees lost the guarantee of medical coverage for life, once promised to every worker who put in the needed years to retire or whose work injury put them onto permanent disability. In its place, the companies transferred full responsibility to the union to administer retiree medical coverage starting in 2010, with only part of the money required to do it – a so-called union-administered VEBA fund. According to an analyst for Citigroup, the amount funded to the VEBAs, taking into account medical inflation, ranged from about 57% of what was required at GM to 46% at Ford.

That didn’t prevent union officials from repeating their asinine claim that the VEBA was “safe for 80 years.” How about 80 months?

Nor did reality prevent union officials from repeating the hare-brained claim that the VEBA would protect retirees from a company bankruptcy. All three companies are petitioning for a “prohibited transaction exemption” so the VEBAs could hold more than 10% of employer securities and/or real property. That prohibition was written into federal law decades ago – in an attempt to prevent employer bankruptcies from destroying retiree benefits. At least 25% – and perhaps as much as half – of the GM VEBA is in employer notes, stock or IOUs, some of which do not come due until 2020. At Ford, 55% is clearly in company notes, etc., and perhaps as much as three-quarters. All worthless pieces of paper in case of a bankruptcy! Chrysler’s new owner, Cerberus, is even issuing some stock to put into the VEBA fund. It’s an empty gesture – no one can have any idea what value attaches to the “stock” of a privately held company like Cerberus, no more than anyone knew what all those mortgage-based securities were worth – which turned out to be nothing.

Hidden in the fine print of the documents setting up the VEBA trusts is a provision requiring retirees to pay more for their medical care every year – even while their pensions stay frozen. There is another hidden provision, which allows the trustees of the new VEBA to reduce benefits, increase retiree payments beyond these annual increases and assess active workers additional payments into the fund. Those same trustees are explicitly to be held “blameless” for any “mistakes” they make.

But the worst of this matter is not in the details – it’s in the fact that these three giant companies thought they could use up workers’ vital energies for 30 years or more, then throw them out the door, breaking promises made to them over all those years.

Sacrificing the Next Generation

With changes in the details from one company to the next, the auto companies were given the green light to hire workers into a permanent two-tier arrangement. New workers will get less than half the current wage rate and few of the benefits. The total wage and benefits bill works out to less than one-third of what the auto companies had been paying until now – at least, that’s what GM’s president bragged in a “conference call” he made to Wall Street just four days after the contract was ratified.

Put another way, the new wages, barely $14 an hour, are low enough that a worker with a spouse and two children as dependents, would qualify for food stamps. Auto workers will be trooping down to the welfare office to supplement their wages!

This did not prevent some local officials at Chrysler from proclaiming, “I know some people who would be happy to get a $14 an hour job.” Let those demagogues live on $14 an hour!

In any case, $14 isn’t the end of it – neither in auto, nor elsewhere. When auto wages are cut from $28 to $14, other employers paying $14 an hour today will try to cut it down to $8 or $9 tomorrow.

The “Highlights,” a summary of what is supposed to be in the contract, claimed that each company is limited in how many workers it can hire for these lower wage jobs. In fact, the actual language of the contracts specifies that the company and top union leadership can agree at any time to add more jobs to this classification at GM and Chrysler. The Ford contract exempts thousands of jobs and even whole plants from the limitations.

Beyond these regular low-wage categories, all the companies have been given the go-ahead to hire “temporary” workers on a practically permanent basis and “part-time” workers on a practically full-time basis, at the new rate of pay – which is a reduction of what these classifications pay now!

Finally, the contracts hold out the possibility that some workers might be hired into the higher wage rate – but without the benefits associated with that rate.

The meaning of this contract for the next generation is clear: the sons and daughters and grandchildren of today’s workers, will have a much lower standard of living than their parents had.

Destroying Worker Solidarity

The 2007 contracts were peddled to those currently working in the plants – the only ones with the right to vote on it – as protecting their own wages and jobs.

That’s not true, since wages are to be frozen for four years, and most cost-of-living protection is “diverted” to the companies – supposedly to help pay for the VEBAs! Plus there are many changes in the medical plans that will require higher payments. Nonetheless, clearly these contracts were organized so as to take the worst concessions from those who didn’t have a right to vote: from retirees and from those yet to be hired, in the hope that the workers voting wouldn’t see beyond their own paycheck.

One of the strengths of the auto workers’ union came out of the workers’ strong belief in solidarity. Starting from the sit-downs of the 1930s, the union insisted that people doing roughly the same work should get the same wage. Within production, wages for different classifications have always been within a few cents of each other; the same holds true for the skilled trades, with somewhat wider divergences between the various trades. And practically from the beginning, the union insisted that the active workers owe what they have to those who went before and have an obligation to defend their interests.

Workers’ solidarity – that’s one of those “sacred cows” that UAW Vice-president King was so ready to toss aside.

Union officials can junk “solidarity,” but when workers turn their back on other workers, the lack of solidarity often comes back to bite them in the rear end. In fact, it already has. At GM and Chrysler, the low wage jobs are exactly the ones that workers aimed for as they grew older, hoping to get off the line. Now, they are stuck on the line – unless they want to cut their wages in half. And that’s only the beginning. Who is going to protect the wages and pensions of the current workers, when the low-wage workers become the majority in the plants? It took the auto parts maker Delphi only three years, after pushing through a contract in 2003 that lowered wages to new hires, to impose low wages on everyone.

Chasing the Vain Promise of “Job Security”

Perhaps the biggest lie told about the 2007 contracts is that they offer “job security.”

They will provide no more job security – and probably less – than all the previous contracts, going back to 1982. Every one of them made the very same promise of “job security” – only to have jobs disappear. Massively. In just the four years since the last contract, 104,000 jobs disappeared off the permanent rolls at GM, Ford and Chrysler.

Where did the jobs go? Not overseas, as the propaganda would have it. They went to low-wage sub-contractors, sometimes even running sectors or whole departments inside GM, Ford or Chrysler plants. At Chrysler’s Jeep plant in Toledo, the whole body shop, paint shop and chassis department were “outsourced” to three different subcontractors, which carry on the work right in the same complex, but pay lower wages. Jobs went to temporary and part-time workers, working in the same plants for less money, few benefits and fewer rights. And jobs disappeared in the sweat of current workers inside the plants: the companies pushed a greater intensity of work; they set up “alternative work schedules,” which force people to work 10 or even 12 hour shifts; they made absentee policies more stringent, which effectively forced people to work when sick; and they combined production classifications and “collapsed” the lines of demarcation between skilled trades. Every one of these practices is to be widely extended and expanded under this contract. And other ones are added to them in this contract, which only guarantee more job losses to productivity. For example, job standards can now be set based on workers who don’t yet have their seniority – i.e., the ones who don’t dare resist the attempt to speed up the pace of work.

GM announced only four days after contract ratification that it would be laying off 5,000 workers at Christmas time. Chrysler announced six days after its ratification that it intended to cut 11,000 jobs by the end of 2008. Ford casually mentioned, even before ratification was finished, that it may have to “adjust” its “restructuring plan.”

In another time period, the auto companies would have been more prudent. Yes, they signed earlier contracts calling for “job security” and then laid off people and closed plants they had promised to keep open. But they didn’t rush to announce the job losses so quickly. This time they were too eager to show Wall Street the “value” they had “unlocked” in this contract to worry about protecting their UAW “partner” from embarrassment.

More significant – they wanted to threaten the workers who had just voted on the contracts that greater sacrifices are yet to come! They were softening them up, in preparation for a campaign by the companies to push another early retirement or buy-out scam – in order to clear the road for many more low-wage workers.

A Harbinger of the Concessions Fight to Come

It’s been obvious ever since the 2003 Delphi contract, which introduced two-tier wages at that company, that GM, Ford and Chrysler were going to push for a similar wage system in their contracts – obvious enough that quite a few local presidents begged the leadership in the last Constitutional Convention not to let two-tier creep into the Big 3 plants.

It was equally obvious, after the 2005 mid-contract concessions at GM and Ford, that there would be a direct attack on retiree health care. The concessions in the re-opened contracts were relatively minor, in dollar terms – at least compared to the 2007 concessions – but they established some important precedents. They showed that the companies would take back benefits that retirees had been promised “for life” – a promise put in writing on workers’ retirement papers. They also showed that the courts would uphold this theft when the union and company together asked for judicial approval. And the mid-contract concessions demonstrated that the union and the company would put the responsibility on current workers to “keep retirees from losing their medical care,” bludgeoning them to give back part of their wages and cost-of-living adjustments to the company, supposedly to pay for the retirees.

One other thing stood out in this push for concessions at Delphi and at GM and Ford: the workers weren’t so ready to cave in before the companies’ demands.

In 2003, it took a crass maneuver by the UAW bureaucracy to get the Delphi contract “ratified” – the votes of the much smaller number of Delphi workers were rolled in with the votes of the much larger number of GM workers, who didn’t have the same Delphi concessions applying to them. Even if all Delphi had voted NO, they could not have outweighed the GM vote.

In 2005, the decision by the auto companies and the UAW bureaucracy to impose concessions mid-contract came up against a big resistance at GM, where the concessions passed with 61% of the votes, and at Ford, where the contract squeaked through – maybe – with only 50.1% of the vote. As former UAW president Doug Fraser commented at the time, “the vote at Ford was scary” – he meant, of course, scary for the company/union partnership. In any case, they didn’t dare take the same concessions on to Chrysler – at the time.

Two Years of Lies, Falsifications and Deceit

The difficulty the union apparatus had faced in helping to impose these concessions was a warning to the companies and the UAW bureaucracy that it wouldn’t be easy to push through much bigger concessions in the 2007 contract.

Thus began the propaganda campaign. For two years, the auto companies issued scare stories, filled with outrageous claims of financial disaster and threats of bankruptcy. This campaign, picked up by the media and reinforced by the union bureaucracy, reduced itself essentially to the following points.

First, GM, Ford and Chrysler claimed they couldn’t compete with the so-called “transplants,” the Japanese companies producing cars in this country, because of the overhang of retiree medical care, which supposedly gave the Japanese companies, which have few retirees here, a $25 an hour advantage in labor costs.

FALSE! When the auto companies first offered to pay for retiree medical care, the bargain they struck with the union was that workers would get LESS money in their weekly paycheck. In other words, it was a “diversion” for 30 years, supposedly put aside to pay for each worker’s coverage in future retirement. If that “diverted” money has disappeared, then the companies stole it.

Second, the companies claimed that no one could have foreseen how much the cost of medical coverage would go up.

FALSE! They should have seen it – since they are part of the same big money interests that run the medical industry and benefit greatly from it. For example, three members of GM’s board of directors have links to the pharmaceutical industry.

Third, GM, Ford and Chrysler say that their labor costs make them lose market share to the Japanese transplants.

FALSE, again! They didn’t lose market share; they gave it away willingly. They focused their production on trucks, SUVs, vans, and larger cars, scrapping most of their small car lines. More recently, they even decided to get rid of the mainstay of their mid-size car lines, fleet sales. Why? Because they’re not as profitable. If they want market share back, just start up those factories they closed. They would still make profit, more profit actually. Just not as high a rate of return on Wall Street’s investments as some of the financial speculations they’ve engaged in lately.

Fourth, all three companies threatened they would send jobs overseas if they couldn’t get labor costs down.

Just plain horse manure!

These companies – especially Ford and GM – have been investing overseas for over one hundred years, but that didn’t stop them from producing here. Essentially, they invest in other countries to produce vehicles for sale in those markets, not to bring back here. As for Latin America, where they have most of their plants, the U.S. companies export more to those countries than they import in here from them.

The Japanese auto companies moved production here to produce for this market because it is still the biggest, most profitable market in the world. The U.S. companies aren’t going to desert it, not unless they want to commit economic suicide. What they want is to squeeze still more profit out of the workers who produce for it, holding investment down so they can put money in other fields, like housing mortgages or “investment companies” for example! What they want is to scare workers into lowering their own standard of living without a fight.

Finally, GM and Ford warned they might have to go into bankruptcy. To reinforce this campaign, they had already begun – just coincidentally – to declare enormous losses. Chrysler caught on to the game a little late and didn’t declare its losses until last year.

FALSE and FRAUDULENT!

Why would anyone believe anything that the auto companies claim? GM just announced it lost 38.9 billion dollars in the last quarter – but then explained it was only a “paper loss,” due to a 38.6 billion dollar “accounting change” concerning tax credits! 38.6 billion – but only on paper! How much else is only on paper?

Even while these companies declared loss after loss, they continued to buy up companies overseas and other companies in other industries in this country. In the last 10 years, Ford spent at least 30 billion dollars to buy up or increase its investments in 22 companies or plants in other countries – including the financial unit of the largest Japanese supermarket chain! GM bought up more than twenty mortgage companies in this country. Ford and GM alone gave out 79 million dollars to their top four executives in 2006 even while announcing enormous losses. And all three auto companies handed out money hand over fist to big investors. Cerberus is already trying to issue bonds, running Chrysler into debt – in order to pay a big “dividend” to the “private investors” behind Cerberus.

Watch what they DO, not what they SAY! Of course, they always could decide to declare bankruptcy – not because they ran out of money but because they calculate it would help them push workers to take still bigger cuts. But that’s not a question of economics. It’s a question of forces – will the workers use their organized forces to stop the never-ending demands for more concessions?

At one time, the UAW led the march going upwards. What auto workers fought to get for themselves set the bar high for other layers of the working class. In fact Toyota, GM’s supposed competitor, even admitted it was forced to match the high wage rates at GM, Ford and Chrysler.

Now that the UAW bureaucracy has helped U.S. companies cut wage rates down to only half what Toyota and Honda are paying, will any worker at the “transplants” want to join the UAW? What will the transplants do, now that they don’t have to pay $28 an hour to keep the union out? Will they try to cut wages in half to keep pace with GM, Ford and Chrysler? Of course!

Today’s UAW leadership is leading a “race to the bottom.”

The Bureaucratic Straitjacket

It’s incredibly difficult for workers to fully register their opposition to national contracts like these. Nonetheless, they did it this time and came close to stopping the drive at Chrysler. There was greater resistance to these contracts than anything seen in auto in nearly 60 years, since the McCarthy period stripped the union of the militants who had formed it. At GM, the first company to vote, the contract passed by the smallest margin ever for a major auto contract – 34% of production and 36% of skilled trades voted NO. This record was soon bypassed at Chrysler, where 44% of production and 49% of skilled trades voted NO. At Ford, coming at the end, after the “pattern” had been set, not once, but twice, and where workers didn’t see the possibility to stop it, the NO vote dwindled to 22%.

The significance of these NO votes can better be appreciated when compared to previous national contracts, when the announced vote usually included no more than 10% to 15% registering opposition, sometimes less.

Workers who want to oppose a contract have to break out of the very divided, yet tightly controlled bureaucratic framework that surrounds contract negotiations.

The 2007 contracts covered 73,000 workers at GM, 54,000 at Ford and 46,000 at Chrysler – in plants, parts outlets and other facilities spread widely across the country. It’s no accident that the union chose GM to settle the first contract – which traditionally sets the “pattern” for everyone else. GM has 73 facilities in 27 different states, stretching from Southern California to upstate New York. There were undoubtedly other reasons for choosing GM. The 2005 concession fight at Ford and the known resistance at Chrysler to those same concessions certainly suggested GM as the choice for pattern setter.

In any case, it’s never been simple for those who want to organize an opposition. How to know if there are others who feel the same way? How to know what others are doing and what forces that represents? The rank and file, disconnected from each other, goes up against a highly centralized company and highly centralized and controlled union bureaucracy.

This is reinforced by the nearly complete lack of widely circulated information. Before this contract came out, there was not one single official union meeting with the ranks in attendance where the leadership raised their intention to negotiate a VEBA or two-tier wages – not even in the Bargaining Convention, certainly not at local meetings.

Workers do not see the actual contract before they vote – only the summary “Highlights.” The 2007 “Highlights” glossed over, when they didn’t outright ignore, the magnitude and extent of the concessions contained in this contract. No wonder it’s common for workers to call such productions “The Lowlights.”

The local presidents do get a copy of the contract, as do some other representatives. But most of these contracts are kept safely away from the prying eyes of the ranks. Even if the rank and file does get a copy through some channel, there is hardly any time to go over it to glean the information. From the day the UAW local presidents got the contract at GM, for example, there were only three more days before the first vote was taken. Three days to pore over one thousand and some pages in the contract, not to mention 156 pages of “unpublished letters” – and then to get the information circulated.

The Fight for Union Solidarity

The organizing against this contract goes back, in fact, to the earlier fights, and it depended on the fact there were already militants who had some influence in their own plants or areas as the result of past activity.

At Delphi, several workers, including Gregg Shotwell, a convention delegate, well known in the western part of the state of Michigan, opposed the 2003 and 2006 contracts there, and especially Delphi’s phony bankruptcy and two-tier wage attack on worker solidarity. Todd Jordan, who was part of this activity, had already grouped a few activists around him in the Kokomo Indiana area, who themselves had people linked to them either in Delphi plants or in Chrysler plants, in part through a website Jordan had set up, “Future of the Union.” At one point, Shotwell and Jordan traveled to cities with Delphi plants, trying to find other workers who were outraged by the phony bankruptcy scheme of CEO “Steve” Miller. They made contacts with activists in Delphi locals as far away as Buffalo, New York.

When the UAW tried to push through the 2005 contract re-opener, first at GM, then at Ford, the companies and the union apparatus got a surprise. At both companies, activists well-known in some plants carried out a series of activities in their own plants to oppose the concessions, organizing meetings, circulating the information, putting out leaflets and pushing people to come out and vote. Activists from different plants who already knew each other, or who had come in to one plant from another one, used those links to make a little bit of a common campaign, especially at Ford, where workers had the advantage of more time. Because the GM concessions came first, that gave the Ford workers the possibility to get information around sooner, warning that the GM concessions would soon be brought to Ford.

At the beginning, all these militants were focusing on their own plants, or at best their own company, but eventually the activists at Delphi or at GM and Ford ended up in contact with each other. And as Delphi came in with a new contract, bringing everyone’s wages down to the bottom tier – after offering buyouts to get rid of some regular-wage workers – a new round of meetings and a couple small demonstrations were carried out over these issues, either in Detroit or near some of the Delphi plants.

All these activities put activists in contact with others they had not known before. Many of them began to make some use of various websites that had first been set up by the activists at Delphi, not only “Future of the Union,” but also “Factory Rat” and “SOS,” (Soldiers of Solidarity). Using these sites to convey information as soon as they got it put the activists in contact with other workers who were angry and had been trying in their own workplaces to react against the push for concessions.

The UAW’s Constitutional Convention took place in June of 2006, and the Bargaining Convention in March of 2007. That gave some people the chance to run in their own plants as delegates, raising these issues. None of the militants who went had any illusion that they would shift the policy of the union, but they did make use of their chance to speak, showing that there were people ready to oppose the concessions. Justin West, an activist from Mitsubishi declared: “I was at the convention in 1998 when our late president Steve Yokich called the concessionary filled settlement at Caterpillar Tractor a ‘victory.’ Caterpillar is hiring...2nd tier wages, no benefits, no seniority, and full-time temps. Concessions, be they at GM, Ford, Chrysler, American Axle, Delphi, Visteon, Mitsubishi, NUMMI, and or elsewhere will not be a victory.” Gary Walkowicz, from Ford, warned: “The ink is not even dry on the COAs and the corporations are demanding more concessions in the national contract. Giving up concessions has only made the corporations bolder and made them more greedy.” Wendy Thompson, who had led a fight against concessions as president of an American Axle local in Detroit, ironically asked, “Solidarity with whom? The company or fellow workers?” There were others. Angry speeches like these got picked up in the media. And this opened up a few more contacts for them. The same thing can be said of the Bargaining Convention in March of 2007. Some of the activists used what they had done at the Conventions to report back to workers in their own locals, warning about the concessions that were about to be brought in.

Obviously, the work varied from plant to plant. In many plants, there was no one who raised the issue or got other workers involved. In other plants, at Ford’s Rouge truck plant for example, militants organized meetings, circulated a statement all up and down the lines, asking workers to declare their opposition to these concessions, sending it on to activists in other plants and to the Bargaining Convention. Over half the workers in the Truck plant signed. Most of the people active in this had been the people who organized a vote against the 2005 concessions, which ended up being more than 92% NO at the Truck plant, where Walkowicz, a former plant chairman had organized the opposition, and 59% NO in the Tool & Die unit, where long-time activists, and Ron Lare and Judy Wraight, carried out a similar campaign.

During this same time, temporary workers in Belvidere, Illinois began to organize at their plant. Top UAW leaders had signed a secret agreement with Chrysler for the Belvidere Assembly Plant, allowing Chrysler to use up to 2000 temporary workers for up to two years, without ever allowing them to become permanent. The deal had been kept secret from everyone – even from the temporary workers who were hired in 2006! They were put through orientation as if they were becoming regular full-timers. Many left other regular jobs to be able to have a “good job” at Chrysler. Only on the day they were to start – or in some cases, after they had already gone to work – did Chrysler’s personnel department bring out the employment contract for them to sign, where they learned they were only temporary. The newly hired workers cried “Fraud!” – and that was the beginning of a series of actions the temps took, including pushing a suit against Chrysler. But they also began to make some contact with the militants in other workplaces who had become active, originally at a meeting with Caterpillar and SOS activists in Peoria, Illinois.

While all this was going on, the corporate propaganda campaign was having some impact in the plants. Some of the talk about bankruptcy and financial difficulties was repeated in the plants. There was a widespread fear in many plants that they would face concessions in 2007. It was fear, mixed with hopes that the contracts wouldn’t be quite so bad, and doubts that the union would, in the end, impose such drastic measures. Workers had lived through company propaganda campaigns before, only to have the companies back off the worst demands at the last minute.

In September, three retired regional directors, Jerry Tucker, Warren Davis and Paul Schrade, issued a public letter to UAW President Gettelfinger, expressing their opposition to the VEBA. This letter appeared on the Soldiers of Solidarity (SOS) website, and from there was picked up and circulated in some plants. Increasingly, the SOS website became the source of trusted information about the possible concessions, and it also carried copies of what different militants were circulating in their plants. Some of those things were then picked up by people who didn’t know the activists who had put out the information, but they wanted material to use in their own plants.

During the summer Tucker had pulled together in St. Louis a meeting of a few dozen people from the base he had built up as regional director and as one of the organizers in the late 1980s of “New Directions,” an opposition that grew up inside the UAW against the first rounds of concessions in the years 1980-87.

Davis also made use of contacts he still had left in Ohio from his days as regional director to begin circulating information about the coming concessions.

In other plants, retirees, usually those who had once been active, like a former GM local president, Frank Hammer, or former Chrysler stewards, Sam Johnson and Larry Christensen, tried to address themselves to the active workers. And at least one retiree chapter took an “advisory vote” on the contract, like the retiree chapter of Hammer’s former local, which voted almost unanimously against the contract, sending their “advice” on to the local.

Before the contracts came in, activists made arrangements to get copies of the full contract, pick out the language of the concessions so it could be seen and then post it on SOS and the other websites. In all three cases – GM, Chrysler and Ford – the actual language of the full concessions was posted early in the day after the presidents’ meetings. It was the first time that the actual language of the contracts was made so widely available. That allowed people active in plants far away to have something to show people in their plants. And within another day, leaflets that were being used in some plants were posted on the websites so that other people could pick them up and use them in their plants.

Once again, because the contract came in first at GM, this gave militants at Chrysler an advantage as far as having a little more time to circulate information.

The other thing that opened up things at Chrysler was the fact that one member of the bargaining committee, its chairman Bill Parker, long-time president of a Chrysler local in the Detroit area, issued a “minority report” opposing the contract, although he was silent on the problems of the VEBA. The leadership announced that the committee had supported the contract 8 to 1. In fact, things were quite a bit more complicated than the announcement would have it. Shawn Fain, a skilled trades committeeman from a Chrysler local in Kokomo, Indiana posted the following description of the Chrysler committee vote on the Local 1166 website: “The National Committee was, at first, unanimously opposed to the agreement. After a little pressure was put on, a second vote came out 6 against and 3 for the agreement, after a little more pressure was put on, the vote was 5 against and 4 in favor, and finally after more pressure from the International the final tally was 8 members of the National Negotiating team in favor and 1 opposed.”

At the Chrysler presidents’ meeting, because the one member of the negotiating team who voted NO presented a “minority” report, there actually was some discussion, lasting longer than had been anticipated – and this made the media realize, for the first time, that a contract might actually be voted down.

Then, when the first votes came in, the production workers at two big assembly plants near St. Louis voted 81% NO and 79% NO. The media had completely downplayed the 65% to 35% GM vote, ignoring how much bigger than usual was that no-vote. But now, they couldn’t ignore the possibility that Chrysler might turn it down. Over the next few days, that was even more obvious as two big Detroit area plants, closely associated with the top leadership of the union, Detroit Axle and Jefferson Assembly, also voted down the contract, as well as a plant in Twinsburg Ohio. It seemed likely that the four Kokomo plants were going to vote against it in a few days, which eventually they did, helped by the stand taken by Shawn Fain and the local he was part of. And it seemed quite certain that the Belvidere plant, with all those angry temps, would vote it down.

So the top leadership went into overdrive. Up until then, they had depended on the near-lies in the “Highlights,” repeated and exaggerated by the media, and on the 2-day and 6-hour “Hollywood strikes” at GM and Chrysler – strikes whose purpose was to show the rank and file that the union leadership had eked out every single thing that could be gotten from the companies. Many business commentators made that exact point. The UAW leadership had also counted on the tradition that the “pattern,” already passed at GM settled everything.

Faced with rising momentum among the rank and file, the top leadership put its own apparatus to work to put out the brush fire. They flooded the plants with international reps, staff and every local officer and hanger-on who could be released to make it onto the shop floors. Threats that your plant will close if you vote it down. Promises that your plant will stay open longer if you vote for it. Threats that you will be on strike for the next six months if you vote it down. Pleas to “save the union.” Warnings that you can’t break “the pattern.” Attacks on “outsiders” – coming, in many cases from those porkchoppers who’ve been living in the apparatus for years, completely cut off from the workers’ daily lives.

What happened at Chrysler’s Warren Truck Plant was typical. The mood shifted daily. On Monday workers were ready to join the other plants that had voted no. Tuesday, the battering from International reps began to take its toll. On Wednesday, a meeting that bombarded workers with every imaginable claim had its effect, just long enough to sway the vote. Two days later, doubts about the choice began to surface – and a week later, when Chrysler announced the 11,000 jobs cuts, anger revived at having been tricked.

Undoubtedly a few Chrysler local apparatuses added some YES votes behind closed doors for good measure – in some plants the total number reported as voting was so close to the total numbers for the plant that it was patently absurd. But the reality is that the apparatus was still strong enough to block workers’ first reactions. Almost certainly, the workers did not go into this negotiation period with the absolute conviction that they were going to do whatever was necessary to oppose the concessions. Finally, there weren’t enough activists throughout this large company, militants who had already won the trust of other workers, to bring the ranks to stand up to the apparatus.

At Ford, with the NO vote not quite big enough at Chrysler, the contracts seemed like a done deal. And the leadership was more careful about scheduling the votes. All those locals they controlled voted first, trumpeting the first big YES votes, leaving the “suspicious” locals to the end. But the reality at Ford was shown in the low numbers that went to vote at some key locals – less than 3500 out of 8000 at Local 600, for example. If the workers were not ready to stand against the apparatus, neither were they eager to cut their own throats.

What Now?

This kind of sweeping attack shows how arrogant the capitalists have become. It’s also a warning. Having pulled auto workers wages down, they will quickly move to bring down everyone else even more. This contract is only the beginning of a new, much more rapid downward spiral for everyone, including the auto workers themselves.

This push of the capitalists to put their hands on an ever bigger share of the nation’s wealth will not stop of its own accord. It will stop only when some parts of the working class begin to fight back, bringing others in their train.

The question is what this whole contract fight will mean in the future. Will it convince workers there is nothing they can do? Or will it be a turning point from which the workers begin to pull their forces together, deciding that, yes, they have no choice but to make a fight?

In part that depends on the militants who led this fight this far. Are they able to build on what they did? In fact, they did a lot. The votes, especially at Chrysler, but in fact at all three places, were a testament to that. As was the near panic the UAW bureaucracy and parts of the business press were thrown into for a few days, when it seemed likely that Chrysler would be voted down.

The activists who organized this campaign broke down the blockade on information – not everywhere, of course, and not enough. But they did that.

Workers – even those, and maybe especially those who voted for the contracts – may have learned something more about who they can really trust.

Above all, the course of the auto contract fight demonstrated that there are workers able to see and ready to stand up for their own real interests, against the demands of the companies, and despite role played by the UAW bureaucracy as stooges and hatchetmen for the companies.

Without such militants, establishing links with each other, finding common ground on which to fight, the workers would have found it much more difficult to express their opposition.

The presence of such militants counts for a lot, more, perhaps, than they realize right now.