The Spark

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

American Axle strike:
At a crossroads

May 19, 2008

On Friday night, May 16, UAW leaders (United Auto Workers) announced they had cut a tentative deal with American Axle Manufacturing (AAM). If ratified by the 3,600 strikers, the agreement would end the 12-week-old strike. Most of the details were hidden, but the information that did come out made it clear that Axle got almost all of what it asked for. The voting is scheduled for early this week.

The strike was provoked by GM’s desire to continue lowering its labor costs, including in the parts plants it depends on.

When the American Axle-UAW contract ended, management said it needed to cut wages by 50%, pushing them down to $14.50 an hour, or in some cases to $11.50.

GM made it clear it was behind Axle’s decision. It had accumulated a large inventory of unsold cars, letting it ride out a long strike.

On their side, UAW leaders offered to let Axle cut wages down to between $14.65 and $16 an hour.

In other words, the workers were up against not only Axle and GM, but also top union leaders.

Axle workers soon made it clear they were not ready to cave in to such demands.

The company essentially sat it out, hoping to wear the strikers down. As the strike wore on, it became obvious many workers were severely pinched for money. But UAW leaders refused to increase the amount of money going to strike benefits – which they easily could have done.

Nearly two months into the strike, Ron Gettelfinger, UAW president, announced the union was calling a rally for two weeks from then – but offering to cancel it if there was a settlement. Just before the rally, he announced its cancellation, pretending the union and the company were close.

But it was obvious on the line – and undoubtedly obvious to management and top UAW leaders – that workers were not ready to concede, neither to the company’s demands nor to the union’s offer. “We might as well lose this job if it’s going to pay so little.” “Why go back for a wage that won’t let us pay for the house and car we already have?” “Might as well hurt a little now instead of a lot later.” These were the common sentiments on the picket lines.

UAW leaders and Axle management didn’t even bother to bring out an offer. Instead a scare campaign was ramped up.

American Axle advertised for new applicants and set up “training” in schools, hinting that these “trained” workers would be brought in as scabs. Strikers reacted by picketing the schools and making a public scandal.

AAM told the press that it could get all the axles it needed by expanding production in one of its Mexican plants. The press repeated this as fact without questioning whether it was possible for one plant to replace five.

UAW leaders doubtless have precise production figures that would reveal this “Mexico” lie to be the whopper it is. But no information came from Solidarity House to undercut the scare stories in the newspapers.

Then General Motors made a show of restarting two assembly plant shifts, claiming they had “received” some axles – another way to worry the strikers, again reported as if GM management had never told a lie in its life.

Axle talked about closing all its U.S. plants, sending all production overseas – as though it were possible to ship heavy axles back to GM from afar.

Absurd – but never mind, the papers repeated it.

On May 10, Gettelfinger did a radio interview, claiming that AAM had threatened to close a third plant at Cheektowaga, New York with 115 workers. Unless that plant is kept open, said Gettelfinger, there will be no settlement.

Just six days later he announced a deal that kept the Cheektowaga plant open – but forgot to mention that two other plants with a total of 900 workers, would close or be sold.

The night the deal was announced, a rumor was started that if the workers did not accept this deal, AAM would start bringing in replacement workers. At the same time, Solidarity House ordered the picket lines to come down – don’t let workers gather together to talk things over and develop a collective response!

The strength of the strike has been the workers’ strong attitude of resistance in the face of weeks of lost wages and despite the psychological warfare waged against them. And their fight has been reinforced by the support of workers from many other workplaces – GM, Chrysler, Ford, the State of Michigan, Blue Cross in the Detroit area, as well as many workers in the area surrounding the Three Rivers plant in western Michigan. Learning that money donations did not go to the strikers, workers from other places began to bring food and other goods. Other workers marched on the picket lines and came to demonstrations because they understood what was at stake in this strike.

So the question now is what will happen? Whatever workers decide, they will still have to find the way to put up their own leadership, since from beginning to end the top leadership of the UAW has shown it is not on their side.