The Spark

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

Union vows to lead the squeeze on Chrysler workers

Apr 19, 2004

The first week in March, at a joint UAW-DaimlerChrysler conference, UAW Vice-President Nate Gooden laid it on the line for the assembled local union leaders: "Every soul in this room has to buckle up and buckle down." But he wasn't talking about organizing, and he wasn't talking about fighting to beat back attacks by DCX (DaimlerChrysler). He was talking about buckling down to help DCX do what it wants – squeeze more work out of fewer workers.

Gooden's speech defended cuts by DCX. He told the conference that Letter 124 must be promoted by union leaders or else they will never get a local union agreement, that is, his office will not approve an agreement outside of Letter 124. And what is Letter 124?

Letter 124, in the 2003 UAW-DCX contract, is a promise by the UAW to enforce on its members a "team concept" method of reorganizing and intensifying work. It would take to a new level the current speed-up, job elimination, and shrinking rights on the job. In this contract, the top UAW leadership now agrees to use a full-court press to force local units into such teams.

Under Letter 124, workers would lose the right to hold a job by seniority. Workers instead will have to rotate through all the jobs in their "team." Classifications will no longer be honored. In addition to assembling parts, each team must do the janitorial work in its area, the inspection work in its area, normal machine maintenance and repair in its area, and material handling in its area. Even more than today, gone will be inspection jobs, janitor jobs, material jobs and skilled jobs.

For skilled trades, instead of separate crews like pipefitter crew and an electrician crew, tradesmen will be expected to be jacks of all trades. The net results expected: fewer and fewer workers employed, with no loss of production.

Letter 124 is no change in general direction. The UAW has been helpful to DCX in chipping away workers' wages, benefits and working conditions for years. Even this year, they didn't wait for Letter 124 to install a much worse attendance program. The less freedom that workers have to be absent, the fewer replacements DCX needs to employ. When Gooden says, "We shouldn't have to do anything to get people to come to work – that's one of your obligations when you get hired," he's warning workers not to expect much help from the UAW if they are disciplined or discharged for absences.

Nor is it new when Gooden argues that workers have no choice but to go along with these changes "or else we (DCX) won't survive." Since Chrysler's alleged brush with bankruptcy in l980, UAW leaders have justified every company attack by saying the sacrifices were necessary to save jobs. The fact that UAW membership has done nothing but fall, and fall rapidly, since l980, seems not to have impacted their thinking!

In fact the concessions made by the union continue to resemble nothing so much as throwing blood in front of sharks. Auto industry analysts expect DCX to use its 2003-2007 UAW contract to eliminate one in every five current jobs.

Most local units have not yet ratified local agreements, seven months after the national agreement was made. Workers at two locals, Warren (Michigan) Truck and Toledo (Ohio) Jeep, resisted give-away contracts until the UAW leaders scheduled votes just before Christmas – and told the workers they either had to vote for some concessions, or the UAW would put them out on strike for the Christmas holidays. The Warren Truck workers had previously voted 90% "No" on their contract. Also, workers at Warren (Michigan) Stamping have twice voted "no" on their local contract. And these contracts, though including some concessions, were far from the huge changes mandated by Letter 124.

It's in response to local resistance that the national UAW leadership announced it will take decisions over the heads of the local units.

At the conference, Gooden told management to step aside and "Let the UAW be first, we know what it takes to turn this corporation around." That is, let the UAW take the lead in setting up increased exploitation and hardships for UAW members – those who don't lose their jobs.

The UAW's first organizers had a different concept. They did not say that workers should save their jobs by sinking to the lowest condition. The best organizers said workers needed to band together and fight to wipe such poor conditions off the face of the earth. It's that exact choice which is placed anew in front of the workers of today – and not only at DaimlerChrysler.