The Spark

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

UAW convention:
News media provide cover for union leaders

Apr 2, 2007

On March 27-28, the United Auto Workers (UAW) union held its Bargaining Convention in Detroit, to formally set its goals for the Big 3 contract talks this year.

But which was the real convention? The one seen by those who attended? Or the one written up in the Detroit newspapers?

What appeared in the Detroit papers, the News and the Free Press? Dramatic headlines: “UAW warns: We’ll shut down Delphi.” “UAW to members: We’ll fight givebacks.” “Gettelfinger doesn’t rule out strikes.”

The delegates and others who attended the convention were scratching their heads. When did he say that?

In fact, the headlines weren’t from the convention, but from a few words uttered by UAW president Ron Gettelfinger at a press conference after the first day’s proceedings. Nevertheless, just beneath the headlines were the real messages: “The UAW plans to take a realistic and creative approach to future bargaining.”

Yes, all of the give-backs and take-aways in the past have been justified with such language. Two-tier and three-tier wage structures in the plants, rampant outside contracting, work standards tossed in the wastebaskets, grievance procedures left to rust, retiree pension and healthcare promises broken – all of these have been “realistic and creative.”

And this is exactly what workers heard, who were at the convention and listened carefully. They heard bargaining resolutions that were watered down and already full of room for more concessions – even though the resolutions are only opening bids.

Certainly in Gettelfinger’s opening speech, there was not even token rhetoric about drawing any lines in the sand, not to speak of a readiness to take back from the companies what has already been extorted from workers. Instead his theme was “times are hard” and the union would “do what’s necessary.” This is the exact language that has been used before previous concessions!

So the convention was more like a painful visit to the dentist or proctologist.

Of course, some delegates did take the floor to voice their opposition to the headlong rush to impose new concessions. They spoke up against such concessions as whipsawing, secret “unpublished” give-backs, and two-tier wages, but were not quoted in the newspapers. Not surprisingly, the Detroit papers did not quote or mention any of those who stood for a more militant approach.

Workers not at the convention would have had to search quite far and wide to find reports like those of CNNMoney.com. Under headlines “UAW brass faces criticism on lack of strategy” and “UAW boss won’t close door on more concessions,” CNN noted that Gettelfinger did not criticize the Big Three’s corporate executives or directors.

CNN also reported on delegates who stood up for a different approach. A delegate said, “This union is in crisis. It’s not working.” Another came with over 1000 signatures from his local membership on a letter declaring they didn’t want any more concessions and they wanted back some of what they’d already given up. In fact, that letter had spread even further, gathering more than a thousand signatures from members of many other locals. “Concessions are just leading to more concessions,” said the letter.

The media coverage was slanted in order to build up Gettelfinger’s image among the UAW readers, to make it appear as if the contract talks were in strong hands – and therefore, that workers need not do anything on their own. But it’s workers’ own initiative that scares the companies most. The hardly-reported real convention showed how much that initiative will be needed. It also showed that a base of support for that initiative exists.