Apr 30, 1982
The concessions given to GM were portrayed by UAW officials as a trade-off,
necessitated by the competition from foreign car makers: in order to get a guarantee of job security, the workers had to give up concessions to GM on wages, benefits, and working conditions.
In fact, there was no trade – the guarantees went only to GM. The workers will give the concessions, but there is no job security given to them in return. In fact, there can be no guarantees given to the workers in times like these. It is not a question of the competition with imports; it is a question of the capitalist economy. We are in a deep, world-wide economic crisis. No one can predict accurately where the economy will go tomorrow, or how much worse things will become. In such a circumstance, the bosses do not give guarantees. The new contract, itself, is an admission of this: the supposed prohibition on plant closings is invalidated if the plant is closed due to economic conditions outside of GM’s control! But even if the guarantees written in this new contract were more binding, what would that prove? GM just forced the UAW to tear up the old contract – including whatever guarantees were in that one – and to renegotiate a new one. What’s to prevent GM from doing the same thing next year? A piece of paper signed by GM is a guarantee of nothing.
The new contract is a cruel hoax. Not only are there no guarantees of job security; but, in addition, the concessions will be the cause of still more lay-offs. The changes in work rules give a freer hand to the company to push its speed-up. Already, today, speed-up is one of the major causes of unemployment in the auto industry. Moreover, the new contract contains a tougher absentee control, the elimination of 9 personal holidays a year, and the reductions in break time. Maybe these are smaller things, but they all mean that still more workers will be laid off.
Obviously, this new GM contract is not the first concession given by the unions. Concessions have been given by nearly every single union, from the strongest to the weakest, from the most reactionary ones like the Teamsters, to the social democratic ones likes the UAW. If this contract is remarkable, it is simply because the concessions are so blatant, and because it is the UAW which is giving them, and GM getting them. The UAW has been the pace-setter during the period since World War II; General Motors is one of the wealthiest corporations in the world, a corporation still able to declare a profit, despite the severe crisis in the auto industry. When GM demands concessions from the UAW, it signifies something for the whole working class. No worker is immune. None of the gains made by the working class are secure.
During the long post-war boom, the American working class was able to improve its situation, as it gained a series of small reforms. One indication of this, or course, is the fact that, in the period between 1945 and the early 1970s, wages have increased significantly faster than the rate of inflation. Another indication can be seen in the additions to the successive contracts of a union like the UAW. Cost-of-living and productivity increases were added in 1948; pensions and medical insurance in 1950; SUB and the short work week in 1955. In general, what was gained by the UAW in one year was gained by the other unions in the succeeding ones, down the line from the stronger to the weaker.
The union bureaucracies which negotiated these contracts took the credit for these gains for themselves, to buttress their own positions within the unions. And these reforms gave a credence to the prospects they held out in front of the workers. With the workers’ lot improving as quickly as it did, the bureaucracy could argue, apparently reasonably, that the working class could improve its situation within the framework of bourgeois society.
The union bureaucracies insisted that the unions which had issued from the struggles of the 1930s had since been accepted by the bosses as partners, even if not quite equal ones. The bureaucracy argued that these unions had long exerted enough pressure to force the state to be a neutral arbiter. According to them, the era of class struggle has been replaced by the era of cooperation; the interests of the workers have now become tied to the interests of the bosses; the pre-condition for any group of workers to do well is for their particular boss to do well.
For most of the period, from the end of World War II up to 1974, the American working class did well. That has to be understood within a certain framework, however. First, the good years for the American working class were the years when American imperialism extended its investments into most corners of the globe. The war cleared the decks for an expansion which is not likely to be repeated.
Second, the workers got nothing for free. They only got what they fought for, despite their wonderful partnership with the bosses. It took, the threat of an industry-wide strike in 1948 to get the COLA; more than 3 months at Chrysler to get the pensions; more than 2 months at GM in 1970 just to take the cap off the COLA and get a few more vacation days.
Finally, the gains were not equally distributed across the working class. The UAW was the pacesetter among the unskilled workers, and many of those who came to the well afterwards did not gain quite what the auto workers did. In fact, a good number of the smaller unions gained very little, and the big mass of the working class – those in the small shops, in the lowest paying service jobs, in all the menial jobs – did very poorly. The gains were not fought for by the whole working class, for the whole working class. Each individual union, usually on a company by company basis, fought for its own gains. A big section of the working class never saw much sign of improvement.
Nonetheless, a large strata of the working class, the skilled workers and those in the stronger industrial unions, did relatively well, for an unusually long period of time. This strata tended to attribute its improved conditions to the unions, and began to expect a permanently improving situation. The working class, especially in its leading layers, accepted the bureaucracy’s view that the working class could co-exist in a partnership with the bosses.
When the working class views its prospects within the framework of such a partnership,
it thereby accepts the rules of bourgeois society. And the first rule of this society has always been that the working class pays for the bourgeoisie.
Even in the boom times, it is true. During all the years of the post-war boom, there was a rapid increase in the total wealth of the society. The bourgeoisie significantly improved its share of this total wealth, relative to the other layers of society. However, this was not immediately apparent because the working class also improved its own situation, even if not as rapidly as the bourgeoisie did. The situation of the working class improved little by little, reform by reform, and that held out the prospect that progress could be infinite.
But it was not. That was a period of boom, one now past. Today, we are in a period of deep recession. Today, obviously, the working class is still paying for the bourgeoisie. The difference is that there is no more window dressing left to hide it. Today, no one can believe the working class is going to reform its way, little by little, to paradise. There are no reforms, only takeaways.
Today, the organizations of the working class, its unions, are totally in the hands of the
bureaucracy. It is this bureaucracy which reinforces the bosses’ threats. When GM insisted it was ready to accept a strike – a strike would give it a chance to work down its inventory – the bureaucracy fell right in line and repeated the same warning to the workers. This bureaucracy disciplines the workers, and it gives them their perspective. According to this bureaucracy, the workers have very few choices today: in fact, they can only vote for concessions, or against them. But in such a circumstance, when the bureaucracy controls the union, what would a “No” vote mean? In the case of the recent GM contract, the old negotiators, headed by Fraser, would have returned to the bargaining table to negotiate a new set of concessions, equally as odious, if not so blatant.
The only prospects that the bureaucracy can give to the workers today is to sacrifice, be quiet, and wait.
Despite all that, a significant portion of the GM workers voted against the contract. With no other prospects than those given them by the union bureaucracy, they voted “No.” Maybe they had nothing else to propose, but at least they were not ready to be their own gravediggers.
So far, this refusal is only a moral protest. It is obviously better to protest than to accept, and it was not so easy for the GM workers to do even this. Nonetheless, the workers still need to find another prospect for themselves than the one the union bureaucracy has fastened on them.
For the workers really to refuse concessions, they must be ready to fight for their own interests. And they cannot do that in isolated fashion. They cannot do it the way the bureaucracy has told them to do it: they cannot fight company by company, industry by industry. The only response that has any possibilities today is a response of the whole working class.
On some level, the workers understand this today. But it is exactly this that seems so difficult.
And yet, just look at what might have happened at GM. If the workers at GM had begun to fight, they would have had a good chance to win other sections of the working class to their side. Other workers followed closely what happened at GM. Undoubtedly, they knew that concessions given at GM would soon be asked of them. But, also undoubtedly, many of them must have hoped to see someone finally fight back. A fight started by the GM workers could quickly have spread to many other sections of the working class.
All of this was true yesterday, when the concessions were voted on. But it is equally true today, and it will be true tomorrow. The workers are not bound by that contract. When they are ready to fight, they can easily turn their back on it.
If such a fight begins, it is certain that the workers will find themselves very quickly up against everything that bourgeois society can use to oppose them. They will have to face the courts and the state apparatus. They will find themselves confronting the bureaucracy of their own unions.
But the workers can also find a great deal on their side. All the poor layers of the population have been touched by the crisis. Each in their own way has a reason to join the fight against the bourgeoisie. And many other people are learning the meaning of bourgeois society, as they watch it go in the direction of war. Those people, too, have every reason to be drawn to a resolute fight made by the working class.
If the workers at GM, or any other group of workers, decide to fight, they need not fight alone.