Apr 6, 2009
When Chrysler threatened bankruptcy in 1980, the modern age of concessions began. The UAW leadership blinked. They agreed to re-open the 1979 contract they had just signed. They told workers that taking concessions would save Chrysler – and save their jobs.
In fact, neither was true. Workers’ concessions – eleven lost yearly holidays, frozen wages, COLA reductions, and shop-floor speedup – although large to the workers, were a drop in the bucket to Chrysler. It made a miraculous recovery. Iacocca became the highest paid CEO of his day. Loans to the government were repaid early. But workers’ concessions remained lost, not recovered to this day!
And jobs were lost, first by the thousands, and then the tens of thousands.
The union leadership openly declared a new era of company-union “partnership” in order to “be competitive.” Eventually, the UAW’s Bob King termed this a “non-adversarial” relationship.
This non-adversarial, don’t-fight policy was sold time after time to the membership as a “save jobs” policy. It is still sold that way today. But the actual results are job losses in the hundreds of thousands! In 1979, just before Chrysler’s bankruptcy ploy, the UAW’s membership was 1,528,000, of which 720,000 were Big Three jobs. The most recent membership figures are 465,000, of which only 173,000 are Big Three jobs.
The UAW’s rollover at Chrysler was followed by “downsizing” at every big car company during the 1980s. Productivity rose dramatically as workloads on each worker doubled or tripled, mostly uncontested by the UAW. GM, Ford, and Chrysler parts plants were “spun off” in a long process of moving jobs to lower wage and still lower-wage factories.
Every auto worker knows that “partnership” has meant nothing but the continual bargaining away of what they once had. But how did the auto workers come to have something to bargain away? Those wages, benefits and conditions that the companies are set on taking back today were not handed over by friendly managements. Those gains had to be won in battle, in struggle with the corporations. Workers made gains when they understood that the bosses were not their partners, but their enemies – and acted accordingly.
What did the workers think, those in 1937 who sat down in GM’s Chevrolet plants and held them for 44 days, against police assaults, and facing the National Guard? They certainly did not consider GM to be their partner!
What about the tens of thousands of workers who took inspiration from the GM sit-down, and launched sit-downs of their own, thousands of strikes and sit-downs across the industrial Midwest? Were they deluded into thinking their bosses were their partners?
No, those workers were not deluded. They understood the roots of their exploitation and poverty. They acted accordingly. They gathered their strength in numbers and forced their enemies to raise their pay, improve their conditions, accept their unions and respect their human dignity. All that was won in bitter struggle.
Most UAW workers no longer remember what it was like to strike for 60, 90, 111 days – two and three months on the picket lines, two and three months without paychecks. But such determined struggles were the way that gains were won from the workers’ enemies – the same gains that today are being given away, given away to the enemies who the UAW now calls “partners.”
After World War II, GM workers struck for 113 days to win a 17.8% wage increase, simply to catch up to the wartime rise in prices.
Wanting to avoid a repeat of that struggle, the companies proposed to give COLA and an automatic 3% per year raise in the next contract.
In 1950, Chrysler workers struck for 104 days to establish autoworkers’ rights to pensions and to hospital and surgical insurance 50% paid by the company.
In 1961, amid a rash of local strikes at GM plants and after a 17-day strike at Ford, workers won fully paid medical insurance for active workers, and 50% paid for retirees.
In l964, the Big 3 agreed to fully pay medical insurance for retirees and provide prescription drug coverage for active workers.
In 1970, GM workers struck for 67 days to gain 30-and-out retirement.
Important struggles by workers always bring a new force to bear on society. New social and political arrangements have to be made to accommodate workers’ demands. And as one important part of the workforce raises itself up, other workers benefit from the new standards.
But the cycle also works in reverse.
Surely, twenty-nine years of decline should be clear enough proof that “partnership” is an utter failure. The working class and the employing class have nothing at all in common.
If workers hope to stop the downhill slide and begin to improve their conditions once again, they will need to recover the methods their grandparents and great-grandparents knew: the methods of class struggle.
Auto workers are still in a position to stand up and lead the way for others.