The Spark

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

UAW:
The race to the bottom has become a sprint

Sep 18, 2006

Ford Motor Company decided to follow the full General Motors game plan. Announcing a second wave of huge cutbacks, they dangled the possibility of buy-out offers for all hourly workers.

Leaders of the UAW, the auto workers’ union, threatened there would be no buy-outs unless workers accepted concessions, and they adopted the company’s stance, forcing wholesale plant-vs.-plant “competition” to impose drastic workplace concessions.

The new “competitive operating agreements” dramatically increase already existing hardships for workers. Attendance penalties are much stricter. More job classification protections disappear. Many more off-the-line jobs such as clean-up (janitorial) and material handling and transportation are to be contracted out.

Workers can be forced to work ten-hour-day, three-shift operations, so that some plants run every possible minute while other plants close. And – the hidden purpose of this whole scheme – the gates are being flung wide for Ford to hire long-term temporary workers, to avoid the expense of actually keeping higher-paid workers.

These changes, soon to be imposed on Ford workers, follow identical concessions granted by the UAW recently at GM and Delphi, on a somewhat smaller scale at some Chrysler plants, and much earlier at agricultural-implement companies such as Caterpillar.

When this policy of concessions began in 1979, few union members could have imagined it would result in this shameless scramble to give back to the companies all the gains of years of workers’ struggles, as rapidly as possible.

There is no future for workers in following such a policy. Arguing that concessions save jobs, top UAW leaders have presided over a union that has shrunk from about 1,500,000 members in 1978 to 557,000 in 2005.

A different policy allowed the UAW and other unions of the CIO to be built. Rank and file leaders who struggled during the Great Depression to organize the mass production industries called on workers to use their collective power. The sit-downs of the 1930s and the massive strike waves of the 1940s conquered those bosses who then, too, cried poor, having one set of books to show the workers and another to show their stockholders and banks.

Corporations and corporate media today complain endlessly about the costs of health care and pensions, with top union leaders agreeing. But the rank and file of the Depression era understood that they were fighting for a larger social guarantee, for pensions and health care for the larger working class, not for one or another company that could go out of business at any time. In 1949, a UAW leader in Ohio reacted to membership sentiment by proposing a centralized pension fund for all workers in the greater Toledo area. Businesses immediately attacked it as “efficient and rational, but too dangerous.” It would give workers freedom to change employers without losing built-up benefits.

The very next year, as pensions were made an issue in auto industry contract talks, General Motors insisted on having a company-by-company pension plan, to tie workers more tightly to each individual employer. It was in fact Walter Reuther of the UAW who promoted GM’s scheme, against the objections of rank and filers who were unwilling to so fragment their power and limit their future. Reuther’s approach sowed the seed of today’s mad scramble to the bottom.

There are many workers today who want to reject the unions’ race to the bottom and avoid the sweatshop conditions that await. For those workers, the only solution is to find the way to return to the policy and the consciousness of the UAW’s early militant organizers. The working class still has its power of numbers, still holds the tools of production in its hands, and still can organize to turn off the faucets of production – and all of the bosses’ profits.