The Spark

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

Speed-up is driving workers into more than bankruptcy

Sep 26, 2005

According to a report in the Detroit News, since 2002 the United Auto Workers' (UAW) legal aid program has handled nearly 10,000 cases of UAW members going bankrupt. The lawyers estimate that members' bankruptcies are increasing about 10% annually.

The leading causes of bankruptcy for workers are often catastrophic medical bills, and divorce. But the News report focused on a different problem: less overtime available for workers who had come to depend on it. The report states that the typical auto worker in Michigan has lost five hours of overtime per week since 1997, an average loss of $10,000 per year.

Companies these days are constantly eliminating jobs, thousands of jobs. At the same time, production of vehicles and parts has not slumped, it has expanded, as the market for vehicles has stayed at record levels since 2001.

More production with fewer workers – why hasn't this meant more overtime, not less? Because of a never-reported fact of life in workplaces today: speed-up. Intense speed-up. One worker today is doing the work that two, or more likely three, did yesterday. The boss can get more production done in fewer hours. Less overtime is required. Workers' incomes drop, even while they are producing more product per hour than ever.

The first organizers of the UAW used to say, "It was the speed-up that organized Flint." More pay in the envelope was less important to the autoworkers of the 1930s than relief from the inhuman speed of the line. The first job actions by workers after their successful sit-down strikes were to work on a set number of jobs per hour – and then stop working until the hour was up. They forced the companies to slow the line speeds to a more human pace.

As the workers' fighting reflexes gradually deteriorated, the companies very gradually speeded them up. A notable turning point came in the l980s when the UAW began accepting concessions in a big way – chief among them, big concessions on the pace of work. The speed-up ceased to be gradual.

Today, the fact of speed-up may be showing up in a few statistics about loss of overtime income. But behind the statistics is the harsh reality of how far backward the working class has allowed itself to be pushed – and especially that section of the working class which once set a far different pace, not only for itself, but a standard of improvement for the working class across the country.

On every level, workers have been forced back nearly to those inhuman speeds and conditions of pre-union days. And so, the working class has returned to the same choice that faced their great- grandparents: organize and fight for your life – or let yourself be worked to death.