The Spark

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

The meaning of the American Axle strike

Jul 14, 2008

For 12 weeks and three days, American Axle workers carried out a determined strike. Nonetheless they finally accepted a contract containing deep cuts in wages and benefits little better than the company’s original offer.

Some people looking at the strike have said it is discouraging. Maybe, but there is a great deal more that should be said.

This strike was provoked by the outrageous demands of American Axle, a company that could not even claim to be in financial trouble. The company proposed to cut wages to $11.50 to $14.50 per hour, as opposed to the $17.50 to $28.15 per hour workers had been making. But the issue was never just Axle and its situation. This disgusting “offer” was part of an offensive being carried out by the whole auto industry, which was already marked by what had happened at Delphi and at the Big Three auto companies.

In those earlier contract talks, the companies were either in bankruptcy, threatening bankruptcy or declaring what bad shape they were in. But then came American Axle, which could not deny that it had made a profit of 37 million dollars the previous year. Nonetheless it proposed to carry the attacks against auto workers quite a bit further. While the earlier contracts imposed two-tier wages on new hires, American Axle’s was looking to slash wages on the entire workforce.

Certainly General Motors, American Axle’s main customer, was ready for a strike if it happened. It had prepared by increasing its production of trucks and SUVs in January, the month before the strike. It increased its inventories from around 100 days to about 150 days during the month. The auto companies usually maintain only a 60-day supply.

GM was backing Axle in imposing still more stringent demands than what had come before. “We got this and we want more!” It was to be the preparation for the next wave of attacks on auto workers at the Big 3 companies.

But the Axle workers were not ready to roll over and play dead. And the longer the strike went on, the less ready were active workers to give in: “No matter what we might lose by striking, if we accept the company’s offer, it would simply delay the point at which we lose everything anyway.”

By early April, GM itself may have been looking to bring the strike to an end. UAW President Ron Gettelfinger jumped on board, announcing plans for a rally in support of the strike to be held April 18 in downtown Detroit. But said Gettelfinger, “We’d like nothing better than to cancel our rally on April 18th because the strike was resolved by having a ratified contract.”

The UAW International did indeed cancel the April 18th rally, but not because a settlement was in hand. There was nothing that Axle proposed that workers were ready to accept. The cancellation of the rally set something else in motion. Activists at Axle and at other plants were pushing for a rally and some local union officials were ready to be part of organizing it, even to issue calls for other workers to come and to support the Axle workers.

Faced with that activity, the UAW International made another about-face, giving its approval to the rally.

Activists who had pushed to get the rally, bringing other workers to it, were pumped up by the turn-out. They were not ready to give in to the demands of a tyrant like Dick Dauch, American Axle’s CEO, who made a point of announcing in the middle of the strike that he had paid himself 10 million dollars in salary and stock options the year before.

The company had to understand that the workers weren’t about to accept its demands. That’s when Axle stepped up its threats to take work overseas and to close plants.

At this point, the strike had become one of the longest UAW strikes in recent memory. Nonetheless, the International had made no move to increase strike pay – despite the fact that the UAW had amassed a strike fund of one billion dollars and despite the fact that a union convention years before had authorized them to double strike benefits in a difficult strike.

In fact, when other locals raised money to support the Axle strikers, they were told they had to turn the money into the strike fund. Some local union officials told workers wanting to support the strike they should contribute food, since money wouldn’t go to the strikers!

There certainly was support from other locals and other workers. There was a wide-spread understanding in local areas near Axle plants that the fight involved the whole working class.

To continue their fight, workers would have had to get outside the limited framework the union laid down. They would have had to organize their own meetings, to make their own decisions. They would have had to make it clear they wouldn’t be starved out – going to other workplaces, asking for support, financial and otherwise, calling not just to support their fight, but to join it. They would have needed to carry out demonstrations more widely.

This would have meant a big break with the policy of the leadership of the International. It has long been absolutely clear that the UAW leadership is not going to lead the kind of fight needed. It has been too much of a partner with the companies for anyone to believe it would fundamentally challenge the big auto companies and their suppliers.

There apparently weren’t enough people who understood the need and/or the possibility to make that break. Of course, there are no guarantees in a fight like this. But to continue, strikers needed another perspective.

Finally having upped the threats, Axle came in with an offer that was little better than its original offer. Workers saw no way to continue their fight.

It’s obvious that a strike like this might discourage workers at American Axle and other people who supported them. But that’s not the end of it. American Axle workers put all the companies on notice. Companies now know there is a price to pay, that workers will resist outrageous demands.

People tend to look at the strike wave of the 1930s as though it was a string of continuous victories. In fact, almost up to its culmination in 1937, there were many more defeated strikes than “victorious” ones. But what all those strikes did was to lay the groundwork for the vast wave of sit-downs that swept the country within a few months, changing the whole relationship of forces between the working class and the ruling class.

This strike, much like the Detroit newspaper strike of a generation earlier, trained a whole layer of workers who can better understand the policy of the top union leadership and the real relationship of forces. And like that generation of newspaper strikers, many may well go on to other workplaces where their experiences will be valuable.

After they catch their breath, the American Axle strikers may well play a role in the fights still to come. For we can be sure there will be more fights.