The Spark

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

The strike at American Axle

Jun 2, 2008

After 12 weeks on strike, UAW (United Auto Workers) members at five American Axle plants in Michigan and New York voted to accept the company’s final offer and return to work. Not because they wanted to! But they saw no way out of the bind they’d been put in.

This was the third longest strike in UAW history, but one of the few to suffer such a dramatic defeat. Within a few dollars, the company got what it had demanded from the beginning.

New wage classifications cut unskilled workers’ pay as much as $10 per hour, skilled workers by $6. When benefit cuts are counted in, and the new still lower tier taken into account, the company’s wage bill was cut almost in half. “Pension, wages, healthcare, you name it. They took everything our fathers fought for.”

Gone are longstanding shop rules; and brought in was a total ban on any strikes.

After 12 weeks of determined picketing, workers felt, as one said, “It’s a rotten contract, but probably the best we could get in the situation.”

But it was not the best that the strikers could get – it was merely the best that the top union officials would get! And there is no doubt this is their contract. From the beginning, they pronounced themselves ready to agree to terms nearly identical to the final surrender.

Nonetheless, for nearly 12 weeks, workers held out. Most felt, as one striker said: “If we took the cuts they are asking for, I'd eventually be in this position financially anyways. So we might as well stay out. At least this way I have hope."

They picketed in large numbers, from February’s snows through April’s rains.

Local activists and elected leaders called for a rally outside the company’s annual shareholder meeting.

Many workers – strikers or from other plants – brought out others to picket the shareholders’ meeting. They organized worker shareholders to attend the meeting and point out the hypocrisy of a ten-million-dollar executive getting a 9% raise, then demanding that workers take a 50% wage cut.

They made use of the daily newspapers’ “comments” sections to try to state their case to a wider audience. The workers showed all along that they had the determination to win their strike.

The problem was they found no way to get outside the box the union’s policy put them in. Certainly the union tops did everything they could to keep control of the strike, including cutting off information on the negotiations and letting management lies remain unchallenged.

Strike pay was not increased, even though the UAW strike fund has nearly a billion dollars, and even though workers got up a petition for doubled pay to let them hold out longer.

But the real problem is not that some union leaders pushed company proposals on the workers – although certainly those leaders put up obstacles.

The problem is for workers to build up their own apparatus, for workers who don’t go along with union policy to propose another one.

The real fighting resources are within the membership ranks, their determination, their creativity, their ability to “go to war” for their own interests.

Strikes need to expand beyond the normal bounds. When have workers made breakthroughs within those bounds? The UAW and the other CIO unions erupted on the scene in the later years of the Great Depression just because they went outside normal bounds.

In the 1950s and 60s, the civil rights movement developed in the same way.

These two great movements became so many sparks in the wider political life of the whole population. Everyone being shortchanged by the system began to put forward their own demands. In the last analysis it was this widespread threat of generalized revolt that forced the owners of capital to yield.

In the coming months, we can be sure that more companies will make more outrageous demands. Workers who want to refuse will have to take control of their own actions as soon as possible. Choose their own strike leadership. Decide when and how they strike and what other forms of struggle to use. Decide how to bring other workers into the fight, how to reach out toward the widest possible layers of all those workers who have something to gain by fighting. Tie up business. Shake up the status quo. Ignore those who tell us that we have to live by the bosses’ rules.

The American Axle strikers didn’t have the perspective to go in this direction. But others facing battles soon to come may build on the foundations this strike laid.

This strike had wide support from other workers, even when the Axle workers didn’t approach other workers. It’s an important sign that workers could have the forces they need to win.