The Spark

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

UAW leaders promise more of the same

Jun 26, 2006

During June 11-15, the United Auto Workers (UAW) held their Constitutional Convention in Las Vegas.

The opening speech by UAW President Ron Gettelfinger described the severe crisis faced today by the UAW. He mentioned the dramatic loss in membership, the plant closings, bankruptcies, workers losing ground in every aspect of work and life.

But his message to the delegates about the UAW’s future course was: more of the same. In fact, the entire convention as set up by the UAW staff gave no direction to delegates except: more of the same.

In the opening convention discussion, delegate Mike Parker from UAW Local 1700 proposed that the rules be changed to allow several hours’ discussion specifically about the crisis situation and the extreme concessions being demanded of active and retired workers. The chair swatted down that motion.

The convention went on to resemble previous conventions. Vague general resolutions, worded to mean all things to all people, were proposed and passed. Support for the Democratic Party and its leading politicians was the only real action proposed for delegates to go home and pursue. Stopping give-backs was said to be dependent on changing labor laws first.

The fact that more concessions are on the way was not even disguised. Gettelfinger said, “In the not too distant past, when the U.S. economy grew and productivity increased, we could expect wages to rise as well. That’s no longer true.” And, “The challenges we face aren’t the kind that can be ridden out. They’re structural challenges, and they require new and farsighted solutions.”

The “farsighted solutions” proposed to the assembled delegates were: more organizing; more dues money returned to the locals; more money shifted out of the strike fund; electing more Democrats; and promoting the auto industry’s change to alternative fuels.

No wonder the delegates were a very unenthusiastic lot. No wonder there was very little participation in discussion for the first two days. No wonder that Gettelfinger’s attempts to start chants failed miserably.

The few appeals to the delegates as fighters stirred them. But there was a vast gulf between the UAW’s “solutions” and the kind of fight that everyone knows is required. This gulf weighed very uncomfortably on the delegates. It was perhaps the UAW’s least enthusiastic convention ever.

When workers are faced with runaway corporations, with speed-up, with two and three-tier wage structures, with phony “bankruptcies” taking their pensions, with CEOs paid 300 and 400 times a worker’s pay, with unemployment lurking around every corner – what use are the UAW’s kind of “solutions?”

What use is it to talk about “organizing,” when the union’s track record is only give back, give back, give back? Who wants to join such a weak and faltering union?

What use is it to talk of electing Democrats, when they’ve made no difference in years past, and when all the help supposedly voted by Democrats came only when workers were mobilized and fighting?

What use is it to propose changes in labor law without proposing to use union muscle to enforce the current laws that employers break every day, every hour, every minute? New laws will be broken just as easily.

What use is it to pass resolutions to help the companies carry out what they want to do anyway?

The leaders could not generate enthusiasm for these non-solutions. But only a few delegates were ready to openly say they disagreed with the leaders.

UAW Local 659 president Paul Baxter opposed the shift of money out of the strike funds, saying that “corporations look at what we’ve got in that fund too.” Past UAW Local 2488 President Justin West attacked the two-tier wage structure as “tearing apart the fabric” of the union. Gregg Shotwell of the “Soldiers of Solidarity” movement at Delphi asked, “Where is the cavalry? We at Delphi feel like we are in the Alamo.” Gary Walkowicz, a past unit president from UAW Local 600, spoke on the first day to say that concessions don’t save jobs, and on the second day denounced the broken promises toward retirees’ health-care coverage. Retiree Wendy Thompson, a past local president of UAW Local 235, seconded delegate Parker’s call for a special crisis discussion.

Some others wanting to speak were ignored by the chair. But these voices remained straws in the wind. The union’s structure is tightly controlled, and speaking out – or supporting those who do speak out – requires unusual determination.

A union leadership that calls upon its membership for no action in a crisis, other than to get out the vote for some Democrats, is a leadership declaring its readiness to let the union die, rather than engage the full power of the union in a real struggle to defend the workers’ positions.

The workers’ future, just as the future of their unions, will be decided by the course of action that the workers set for themselves, independent of such “leaders.”