The Spark

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

UAW justifies less funds for pensions

May 12, 2003

The New York Times reported that the UAW (United Auto Workers) is supporting a provision in a bill pending before Congress that would allow businesses with union workers to reduce how much they have to fund the pensions of blue collar workers. To justify this funding reduction, companies claim that a recent report by experts who looked at the statistics of life expectancies of blue and white collar workers shows that blue collar workers don't live as long as white collar workers.

In fact, the chairman of the committee that wrote this report, Edwin Hustead, adamantly refuted corporations' claims. He told The Times that his committee found that people who had higher income, both while working and when they retired, tended to live longer than those who were paid less, whether they were blue or white collar. Thus, the higher the income, the longer the worker tended to live.

Of course, it is hardly a surprise that big companies would propose a measure allowing them to cut the cost of funding their employees' pensions, and justify it by using false arguments. But what does it mean when a major union like the UAW, that represents mainly blue collar workers, joins and supports the auto bosses' position?

If an important study did show that blue collar workers died earlier, then a union worthy of the name would immediately find ways to fight against the conditions that killed blue collar workers earlier. The union would organize and mobilize workers to fight to reduce pollution fumes that cause emphysema; the chemical fumes which cause cancer; the speed up which leads to stress; the long hours which mean that workers don't get adequate rest, day after day, month after month, year after year. Given the real conclusions of this study, it would fight for higher pay and better pensions as a way to lengthen life expectancy.

The fact that the UAW doesn't even do this is a real mark of how far and how fast the officialdom of the UAW, as well as the other unions, has fallen.

Even just 30 years ago, the UAW fought and won what it called "30 and Out," full pensions for workers who had accumulated 30 years seniority in the plant, even if they had not reached the official retirement age of 65 or 62. In making an argument for early retirement with full pensions, the union officials stated that the conditions that auto workers worked under were so bad, they tended not to survive as long after they retired, and they did not enjoy the pension benefits that they earned. So, they should be allowed to retire earlier. And, those who worked under still worse conditions, like foundry workers, got "25 and Out."

Of course, this gain had tremendous limits. The union officialdom generally did not fight to improve the murderous conditions of work that shortened workers lives, the long hours of work, endless speed-up and job combinations, and the chemicals and bad air that they worked around. Besides that, these early retirement pensions were not social gains made for the entire working class. They were private pension plans that were always limited to those who worked for the same company for that length of time, an enormous barrier for a full pension. If someone worked for different companies, even if they worked for 30 or more years, they still did not qualify.

But at least "30 and Out" was a recognition that workers had the right to a decent life after retirement.

Today, the UAW not only can't expand this advance. They can't even maintain it. On the contrary, they are working arm in arm with the corporations to severely undermine the existing private pensions. The cuts in pension funding that they are arguing for will eventually lead to actual cuts in benefits – and as the pension study shows, this will in turn lead to cuts in the workers' life spans as well.

This is what the top UAW officials accept – with all the advances in science and technology, the vast improvements in productivity, in the richest and most powerful country in the world, with the richest and most powerful ruling class.

There could not be a worse condemnation of what they are turning the union into.