The Spark

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

Auto workers can stop the retreat cold

Jun 3, 2007

The sale of Chrysler to Cerberus hangs over the auto workers’ heads like a threat, warning workers they better go along with company demands or else.

All three companies – GM, Ford and Cerberus/Chrysler – have already issued their demands for the upcoming contract negotiations.

The companies want, number one, reduction or elimination of their responsibility for retiree medical care.

GM and Ford had already moved in this direction with the contract re-opener pushed through in 2005, which reduced medical coverage for retirees.

That re-opener was only the beginning. It didn’t involve big cuts for the retirees. BUT it did establish the principle that benefits promised to active workers FOR LIFE could be taken away from them after they retired.

The auto companies also want, number two, a lower wage rate for new hires, a permanent two-tier arrangement, though which workers hired in the future will never make as much as workers currently working.

Here again, they’ve already established the principle. After pushing older workers out the door into early retirements or buyouts, the companies then hired thousands of temporary workers – whose wages and benefits will never come up to those of the other workers.

Third, the companies want elimination of work rules that require overtime pay for longer hours in a day; elimination of work rules that require standards be set when work is added to a job; elimination of work rules that prevents someone from being forced to cover two jobs at once, etc.

In this case, Chrysler has already led the way. Pushing through so-called Competitive Operating Agreements in one local after another, it eliminated protections long built into the national contract.

Finally, the companies also want to get rid of protections for workers who are laid off – either directly eliminating the jobs bank, or by establishing such impossible requirements that no one can benefit from it.

Not even bothering to wait for negotiations, top UAW leaders have already signaled they are ready to provide the companies with concessions.

Was anyone surprised? They shouldn’t be. UAW leaders were the ones who pushed through all these first nibbles at the workers’ pocketbooks. They’re the ones who today insist that workers have to help bail out their companies – as though companies worth hundreds of billions of dollars need bailing out.

Here’s something else that shouldn’t surprise anyone. The rank and file has already shown that the companies don’t always get their way, that union leaders who push the companies’ interests can be ignored and even pushed aside.

Delphi workers’ resistance not only forced the company and union to proceed more slowly with their cuts. The resistance also sent a message to Ford, which quietly decided not to play that particular game with its Visteon division.

The strongest demonstration of workers’ possibilities came when the UAW put the retiree cutbacks to a vote. With surprise and hurry-up tactics at GM, they got it passed, but even then some GM workers began to oppose it and to spread their opposition. They uncovered more of the small print. And they told other workers. When the voting came to Ford, workers were more prepared. Even the official count – handled by officials ready to miscount in their own favor! – passed the cuts by less than 100 votes.

If workers had been ready to guarantee a strictly accurate vote and count, a different voting result might have been seen. As it was, the opposition to retiree cuts rose high enough among auto workers that their officials dared not come to Chrysler for a vote.

The workers’ opposition may not have been publicly displayed or highly organized. Even so, the rank and file had made up its mind, and the companies and the union leaders who support them had to back off.

Coming into the contract this fall, auto workers have already shown they are unwilling to roll over and play dead. If they build on that, they will have more than enough forces to stop every concession demand.

It’s a matter of not allowing anything to get in their way. Not illusions. Not false hopes. And not false promises.