The Spark

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

Ford Workers Had the Best Idea:
Refuse Concessions!

Jan 24, 2010

On November 2, the official result was announced: workers at Ford had refused the latest demand for concessions, despite the fact that top UAW leaders had mobilized their apparatus to ram through this deal.

It was the first time in 30 years that a national auto contract pushed by top UAW leaders was turned down. The near absolute hold of the union hierarchy over the rigidly run ratification procedure and the difficulty for workers split in so many areas to organize on a national level means that workers have almost always been shut out of making their opinion respected.

Certainly, this wasn’t the first time that real opposition had developed to concessions. In 2005, Ford workers themselves had opposed a demand to extort takeaways from the contract then in force. In 2007, when the most recent national contracts were negotiated, there was strong opposition expressed at both GM and Chrysler to the concessions included in the new contracts. Probably some of those votes, if they had been accurately counted, would have resulted in the repudiation of a proposed deal. And local contracts have sometimes been turned down in the face of pressure coming from local and international officials for acceptance.

But the 2009 refusal by Ford workers was the first time that workers were able to force union leaders to recognize their opinion on the national level. All told, this deal affected workers at 39 Ford plants and facilities, plants that spread from Cleveland to Kansas City and from St. Paul down to Louisville, with warehouse facilities spread from Georgia to California.

In February 2009, with attention focused on the likelihood of bankruptcies and the apparent certainty of new concessions to be wrung from workers at GM and Chrysler, UAW leaders sprang a surprise contract re-opener on Ford workers, arguing that if Ford workers moved to rework their contract to accept some concessions before GM-Chrysler called the shots, they would get a “better deal” for themselves. Although there was opposition, workers were also facing constant propaganda at every level, which made it seem that the whole auto industry was on the verge of collapse. And the widespread layoffs and plant closings were hanging over everyone’s head. While some plants voted down the February concession demands – notably the Saline ACH plant, the Woodhaven Stamping Plant and the Dearborn Truck Plant, all in Michigan – overall it went through with a 59% yes vote.

When the even tougher concessions were pushed on GM and Chrysler workers by the Obama administration, Ford came back almost immediately, floating the idea that it must have every bit that GM and Chrysler got – in order to “remain competitive.”

Top UAW leaders forgot what they’d said about Ford workers getting the “earlier, better deal.” In early August, Ron Gettelfinger, UAW president, called a meeting of the UAW Ford National Council, made up of local presidents and bargaining committee reps. Pretending to solicit the advice of the Council, Bob King, UAW vice-president for Ford, reported that Ford was asking for some additional concessions. A dozen local presidents spoke, all but one explaining that opposition in their own plants to further concessions was so high that any new deal would be voted down. And they warned that if they were forced to push these concessions in their own plants, given the anger of the workers, they would be voted out of office at the next election.

King seemed to step back, but at the end said he would talk to Ford to see if there was a way to get an advantageous deal!

Two months later, October 13, the Ford Council was called back, with King and Gettelfinger there to tell local leaders they had already negotiated a new concessions deal, and now it was up to local leaders to push it through at their plants. Only one union representative spoke against it, Gary Walkowicz, a bargaining committeeman at the Dearborn Truck Plant at Ford’s Rouge complex. It was clear, however, that a number of local leaders were unhappy. Many just sat on their hands when the vote was taken.

Immediately after the Ford Council meeting, Walkowicz issued a statement exposing and condemning the new demands for concessions, insisting, “We Can’t Accept This!” Several dozen workers were active in getting the statement passed out not only in the Truck plant but at several other plants at the Rouge. Some workers got it to people they knew in other plants in the Detroit area, and workers and a few reps in other plants in Michigan and Ohio who had been active in earlier fights took his statement as the basis for calling for a NO-vote. In the Dearborn Truck plant itself, seven of 14 elected reps, including the unit president, Nick Kottalis, eventually put out a leaflet calling for a NO-vote. In a number of plants, long-time militants or rank-and-file workers fed up with the constant demands for concessions put out their own leaflets – like this one: “A six-year wage freeze + throwing skilled trades and new hires under the bus, all for a $1000 sucker bonus? No Thanks.”

The UAW apparatus stretched out the time from the Council meeting to the last of the votes to almost three weeks, giving the union apparatus time to pour in squads from all over the country into the plants, one after another, trying to push the contract through. Workers were threatened that their own plant could close if they didn’t vote for the concessions. They heard promises – once again – that their plant could get commitments of new work if they voted for the concessions. And appointed reps were strong-armed, told in no uncertain terms that they were expected, without exception, to go out on the plant floors to push the contract. Jeff Hodges, an appointed rep at the Auto-Alliance plant in Flat Rock, Michigan, issued a letter saying he had been warned that he would lose his appointed job if he dared to oppose the contract. Several reps at the Rouge who openly opposed the contract were replaced on the floor by flunkies ready to support the contract. When a local president took a public stand against the deal, he was told he had a choice: either support the deal, or the International would make sure he lost the next election. And so on. Workers had seen this kind of thing before – if not with as much ferocity and intensity. At the Dearborn Truck Plant, a center of the organizing against the concessions, workers several times counted a dozen different International reps and local officials coming through in a single day.

Some workers were convinced it wasn’t worth going to vote, saying, “It’s the same old shit. It doesn’t matter what we do, they’re going to steal it again.”

Nonetheless, opposition was spreading. Walkowicz’s statement was appearing in plants as far away as Chicago, Kansas City and some Ohio plants.

Ford itself had helped spread the word, even if accidentally. As the result of earlier concessions, laid-off workers originating from more than two dozen plants had been forced to take a transfer into the Dearborn Truck plant. And Norfolk, Virginia, which had closed, sent large numbers of workers to Kansas City and Dearborn. Many of those workers contacted people from their old plants, sending on the statement, encouraging them to organize an opposition. And of course, workers in other plants had their own grievances. At Kansas City, for example, there was growing anger over the steady demand for an ever faster pace of work – with work-standards grievances piling up, blatantly ignored by management.

And another irony: several workers posted Walkowicz’ statement on a Ford website, Blue Oval Forums, and apparently it got distributed in other plants that way also. Set up by Ford years ago to promote the Ford brand, Blue Oval included a section where employees could express themselves. This time, they certainly did, and with very colorful language about the proposed contract changes. Other leaflets were coming out fast and furious and being posted on the web. At Saline, opponents of the deal listed the money paid to execs, contrasting it to what workers made – and this leaflet was picked up and used by workers elsewhere.

The first vote results to come in were in favor of accepting the concessions – from two locals, one covering three plants in Wayne, Michigan, and the other covering three smaller Cleveland area plants. It was no surprise. The apparatus has always scheduled the voting to put the sure Yes-votes first. Wayne, one of their tightly controlled fiefdoms, had supported the earlier concessions with a 78% Yes-vote. The Brook Park local included a plant scheduled to close but given a reprieve in the deal. What was a surprise – and indicative – was the closeness of the vote – less than 51% recorded “Yes” at Wayne. And workers there, taking the temper of the plant, didn’t believe it had passed.

But the bureaucracy overplayed its heavy hand. The day before these votes, they had sent Bob King into the Dearborn Truck plant to twist arms. Ford obligingly shut down the whole assembly line on the afternoon shift for a half hour for King’s speech – a half hour’s lost production, something unheard of!

While the microphone was being set up, King asked, “Can you hear me?” The first innocent “no” was immediately turned into a roaring chorus of “NO! NO! NO! NO!” Hand-clapping, foot-stomping added to the din that forced King to give up. Workers rushed to Blue Oval to write it up. Others called their friends in other plants.

And nonetheless, a few days later, the union apparatus sent King to the Kansas City plant, and Gettelfinger himself went to his home local in Louisville, Kentucky. It may have been out of desperation, but it was also a kind of provocation, and it gave Kansas City and Kentucky workers the chance to tell UAW big-wigs what they thought of them and their concessions.

In the plants themselves, workers were yelling NO, NO, NO when local union officials who had supported the deal dared to show their faces. Some workers were sporting t-shirts or badges, or putting up posters they had made themselves – all calling for a NO-vote. Some were putting out leaflets, exposing the lies pushed by the apparatus. And local leaders were being put on notice they wouldn’t make it through the next election if they stole the vote count.

The workers were making their opinion so clear that the business press acknowledged the large and growing opposition to the Ford concessions. Even Sports Talk Radio reported workers’ opposition. But the problem still was for the workers to control the count.

The contracts are not voted on in an open meeting where everyone can see what the real vote is, but by secret ballot, with the apparatus ordinarily controlling the count behind closed doors. Results, if they are released at all, are usually given only in percentages, local by local, which doesn’t really give any idea of what the overall numerical count is. But this time, in some plants, workers or those elected reps who opposed the contract took it upon themselves to observe the count.

The NO-votes were coming in. And large, important plants were voting NO – Livonia Transmission, 52% NO; Auto Alliance, 73% NO; Sterling Axle, 80% NO; Saline, 75% NO. Nonetheless, UAW officials were telling the media that although the vote was close, it was passing.

BUT workers were posting their results on Blue Oval – getting the actual numbers, not the percentage – and when a plant voted but no one posted its results, other workers pushed to get the numbers. Eventually, every plant, except two small ones, made it on the list. Someone set up a neat table, which allowed all the votes to be seen together and added up – allowing everyone to see that the NO-votes were ahead.

But the vote at Kansas City stole the show. Workers there had been promised more work in the 2007 contract – and didn’t get it. So they’d heard all the lies before. They voted 92% NO – then immediately called their former workmates now transferred to the Dearborn Truck plant, challenging them to beat THAT vote. Line workers at Dearborn Truck took up the chant, “Beat Kansas City.” Five days later, Dearborn did it, voting 93% NO! Actually it was a bigger NO than that – as it was in many plants – but dozens of votes were thrown out because people had written, “hell, no,” “fuck, no,” or just plain “no, no, no, no, no, no, no” scribbled all over the ballot.

Overall, the big Local 600, which contained all the Rouge automobile operations, plus outlying parts plants, voted 3087 “NO” to 823 “Yes.” Effectively, that finished it, although a few more plants still had to vote! Gettelfinger’s own home local voted a resounding 87% NO. On Monday, November 2, Gettelfinger was forced to announce that Ford workers had voted down this latest demand for concessions. The workers’ tally showed that 22,136 had voted “NO,” and only 7,816 “Yes.”

In one sense, it seems like a small thing just to vote NO. But in this tightly controlled, heavily structured situation, it took real determination for the workers to impose their decision. And Ford had to resign itself to not getting the concessions it wanted this time.

On the day the result was formally announced, a Monday, people were pleased to come into work, jubilant over their success. Who’d ever seen a Monday like that? And they noted that management was very careful to stay out of their way.

Workers at Ford have done something important. And the result can count for next time – with workers having much more contact between plants than they had before and discovering that they could impose their wishes against a heavy-handed union bureaucracy working in the companies’ interests.

It’s a victory, and not only for Ford workers themselves. The whole working class – battered by the disappearance of jobs, the driving down of wages, the elimination of benefits – gains something when workers at an important company like Ford refuse the pressure to make further sacrifices.