The Spark

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

UAW Convention:
Who Spoke for the Workers?

Jun 28, 2010

For only the third time in more than 60 years, there was a challenge at a UAW convention to the president-designee selected by the so-called “administration caucus.” Gary Walkowicz, a bargaining committeeman from Ford and a leader of the workers who rejected the last concessions at Ford, was nominated for president of the whole union at its convention in Detroit.

Walkowicz was nominated by some Ford delegates who themselves had played a role in organizing the big 70% NO-vote. And his candidacy was supported by Jerry Tucker, who 18 years ago was the last person to challenge for the office of president against the “administration caucus.”

It was obvious, given the monolithic hold over the union by this apparatus, that Walkowicz couldn’t get many votes at the convention. And he got only 74 to 2115 for Bob King.

But his nomination was significant. A leader of the fight to refuse concessions ran against one of those union officials who had pushed the policy of concessions.

Without Walkowicz’s candidacy, the 35th UAW Convention would have gone down as just one more “carefully scripted” convention, from which the workers’ concerns were completely excluded. As it was, those who tried to raise issues were forced to run through hoops just to be heard.

Dozens of resolutions came in from locals attempting to deal with the crisis facing the union and its members. They were buried long before the convention opened. There was no discussion of issues like two-tier wages that destroy union solidarity; nothing about the broken promises to retirees; nothing about the way top officers are elected and contracts ratified, both bypassing the membership; nothing about the fact that the International had imposed concessions on locals despite opposition from local committees.

Instead, the convention was filled with speeches by politicians and other union leaders ignoring the real problem facing the working class. Then, there were all the balloons and hoopla for the official candidates – and parties.

“You wouldn’t know this was a union in crisis,” said one local president to the Oakland Press.

UAW contracts once set a steadily improving pattern for other workers, as workers fought to get a bigger share of the wealth their labor produced. For the last three decades, however, the pattern set by UAW concession contracts has been a disaster. With the UAW leadership working to push through one concession after another, auto wages lost ground, benefits were destroyed, working conditions toughened.

Pushing concessions, union officials claimed it would save jobs. That claim was a big, fat lie. The biggest concession of all was the loss of good-paying jobs – and along with it, a steep drop in union membership. Three quarters of the jobs at the Detroit Three companies were lost. Some were lost to speed-up. Many more jobs went to low-wage subcontractors, most of them right in this country. Today, many subcontractors run production in former GM, Ford or Chrysler buildings. Others have space right inside GM, Ford or Chrysler’s current plants.

The concessions in auto set the pattern not just for the non-union auto companies like Toyota and Honda to cut their wages. But they also were the justification used by other industries to gut their wages and benefits – producing a roaring flood of profits. Even today, in the midst of a deep recession, companies make astounding profits, passing on much of them to the banks with which they are linked.

Walkowicz’s candidacy was a statement that workers are fed up – no matter how many union officials turn a deaf ear to what the ranks are saying.

Gregg Shotwell, known for the role he played in fighting the concessions drive at Delphi told Automotive News: “Gary’s audience won’t be the hundreds of UAW delegates in an air-conditioned Cobo Center. It will be the more than 100,000 active hourly workers on Detroit 3 factory floors. He’s really out to build resistance to further concessions during next year’s master contract negotiations.”

We can hope so. There needs to be a fight to take back what these greedy corporations and the banks that stand behind them have stolen from our labor.

One person alone can’t change all this – even if he was brave enough to tell the truth in a convention from which the workers’ opinions were excluded.

But his candidacy was a reflection of those hundreds of thousands of workers who are fed up. And when those workers begin to move, mass their forces, they will have the means to stop this race to the bottom, and to toss aside union leaders who took the companies’ side against them.