The Spark

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

Facing the Crisis and Concessions:
Radical Answers are Needed

Oct 3, 2011

The following is from a presentation given at the September Spark public meeting in Detroit.

Yesterday the news was that GM and the UAW had a deal, the first of the three auto contracts to finish negotiations. The deal is, that in exchange for a small up-front bribe, $5000 before taxes, all of the losses inflicted on auto workers since 2003 are supposed to be made permanent. And we are supposed to accept it! Permanent concessions.

It’s not only auto, it’s everywhere. The Detroit Schools Emergency Financial Dictator decreed a 10% pay cut for everyone. And just to be fair, he will take 10% off his own salary, which is $250,000 a year. But he’s still living on prime rib, isn’t he? While for everyone else he’s dishing up more mac and cheese.

The State of Michigan is demanding that its workers take concessions: pay freezes and benefit cutbacks – $6,000 per worker. The state government passed a lifetime limit of 48 months on welfare; 12,000 families will be cut off October 1. Are there jobs for them? No. What will they do? The state doesn’t care. There have to be concessions, say the politicians. Everyone is supposed to take cuts.

Auto workers once fought for wages and benefits that set a standard for the whole working class. What they got, other workers fought to get afterwards. Through their struggles, the auto workers helped pull everyone up.

But when auto workers began to accept concessions several decades ago, that helped start a race to the bottom.

The Era of Concessions

In 1999 came a big concession: GM spun off its parts plants and called them Delphi. In 2000 Ford spun off its parts plants and called them Visteon. Wages were pushed down, benefits lost. The companies were also allowed much more freedom to use temporary and part time workers. The road down took a sharp drop and everyone else has been pushed down in turn.

The working class standard of living is dropping fast on this road. Our share of the value that we produce keeps sliding backwards. A Census Bureau report just came out that for the first time since the Great Depression, the median household income today is less than it was 13 years before. Median income is where half the households in the country are above, and half are below. The whole working class has been shifted down in yearly income, and that means, standard of living. Wages are going down even while the cost of everything – food, gas, clothes, utilities – is going up.

Unemployment is stuck on 9% even in the official rose-colored statistics. It’s more like 20% in reality. That’s a national average. It means that one job has to support many more people. Adult children who are unemployed have to live at home with parents; unemployed parents have to live with any of their kids who have a job. Shelters for the homeless are overflowing.

Concessions mean that public services are cut back, and cut back again. It used to take an unusually bad storm to knock out power. Now the slightest breeze and pow! A branch falls, a line goes down, there aren’t enough repair teams – and the food in your freezer spoils. This coming winter, more people will have to use candles for light, and more people will burn charcoal grills indoors for heat and cooking, in major metropolitan cities in the richest country in the world. In the era of concessions.

A Different Choice

In 2009, after years of concessions in auto, Ford workers did something different. They refused more concessions to an obviously wealthy company. They voted down a national agreement proposed by their top union leadership. And not only that. They prevented the leadership from coming back and making them vote again. They did not “vote till you get it right,” as we call it.

National UAW contracts have been rejected before, but before, the voting and counting was controlled by the International and the numbers were “adjusted” to pass by 51 or 53%. In 2009, Ford workers from the ranks mobilized to keep exact tallies of the vote, local by local, and to make sure that locals got in step if they were slow about reporting. The workers kept the running tally public – on Ford’s own Blue Oval internet site. With their finger on the count and on the counters, the vote had to be reported and it was a doozy. 73% NO. Nothing happened despite the threats – “if you turn this down, your plant won’t get that new product.” Nothing – except the workers had something to be proud of. They had seen through the lies and trickery, they dealt with it, they avoided a few of the worst concessions that were forced on GM and Chrysler, and they maintained their morale – not to mention the legal right to strike.

The impulse for that national NO vote began at the Dearborn Truck Plant when Ford halted production and brought in then-UAW-vice-president Bob King to speak in the plant to defend more concessions. He was loudly booed off the floor. All he got out at the mike was “Can you hear me now?” The workers shouted back NO and didn’t stop. Bob had to give up.

That news spread through the thousands of communication channels that the rank and file uses, cell phone to cell phone, neighbor to neighbor, chat room to chat room. When Bob went to Kansas City Assembly he got the same treatment. When then-UAW president Ron Gettelfinger went to his own home plant of Louisville, Kentucky, he got the same treatment. When voting began, Kansas City brought in a huge NO vote, 92%. Word spread. It became a point of honor to see which plant would vote down the contract and by how much. The battle cry in every large plant was “Beat Kansas City!” The workers had found a way to show their dissatisfaction all at once, all across the country, and they did themselves proud. Dearborn Truck right here did “beat Kansas City,” a 93% no vote.

I dwell on this story, even though it is only from one little corner of a big world, to say that it is not true there is nothing you can do. It is true you can’t do it all by yourself. And you can’t set the timing all by yourself. But you can, together with others, push back.

The bosses and politicians can’t do everything they want, as long as there are enough people who take them on, who block them.

Bosses’ Tricks

There are people hoping the economy will get better by itself. Ain’t happening. Everyone’s pay and benefits are under attack. It’s mine today and yours tomorrow and yours the day after. Then they come around to me again!

The bosses have learned all kinds of tricks to demand more concessions and sacrifice from us. They say their companies aren’t competitive, they can’t hold out, they will go out of business, and they have to go bankrupt unless the unions take over the retiree health care risks. OK the UAW did that. So the companies said hey, what a deal, and in 2009 they came back with “quick rinse” bankruptcies at GM and Chrysler, dumped even more of their pension obligations, turned the screw even harder on active workers – and started showing billions in profits, paying back the government loans at record speed because they are eager to hand out dividends to the elite again. GM has 30 billion dollars in what they call a “fortress balance sheet” – but just 2 years ago they said they were bankrupt? And they got away with it? And they are still getting away with it?

This bankruptcy trick worked so well for them that state governments are trying it and the federal government is trying it – oh, the deficit, the deficit! Never mind that the deficit would be wiped out simply by cancelling the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy. Never mind that the Obama administration extended those Bush tax cuts for the wealthy – and wants to come back to cut our Medicare, our Medicaid.

In fact the powers that be in the government and in the corporations – working hand in hand, and shifting positions back and forth – have been carrying out a real onslaught against the working class.

This is where the Ford situation is important. In 2009 the workers did not fall for their trickery and their lies. Ford workers imposed their NO vote, and so they are in position to do something – to put more of a brake on this downhill slide. If we want our median wage shifted back upward, we better do everything in our power to support them, too, and everyone else who shows some fight. Support them and join them!

It Costs to Fight? NO! It Costs More NOT to Fight!

Today the big auto companies, and their partners inside the top union apparatus, are hoping to use the no-strike clause to persuade workers that there is nothing they can do. Of course there is no way that one group of workers is going to roll back the concessions all by themselves. But there is another issue.

Workers can at least demonstrate that we will not be willing partners in cutting our own throats. At GM and Chrysler, workers are being threatened that a NO vote will mean they have to take their chances with an arbitrator. If that is the price of being able to speak our mind and reject a bad deal, then OK. How much worse could it be? No arbitrator has pledged not to increase these wealthy companies’ fixed costs. But Bob King, current UAW president, has. And by all reports so far, in this new deal, he has kept his word.

When the Ford workers voted NO, they were told it would cost them. It didn’t. Clearly they are going to get more money in this contract than GM and Chrysler workers.

Those workers who get up now and speak out, yell, get active, refuse to take it lying down, are of course taking the chance that they will be labeled troublemakers, radical, militant, maybe revolutionary. We need more workers who can say, “I don’t care; if you think this is radical, then OK I’m a radical. You think this is revolutionary? Then call me a revolutionary. So what? The situation is still wrong, isn’t it?”

Those who aren’t afraid of the label will be the ones who make a difference. They will find themselves in the lead when others are ready to step forward. A fight that starts one place can influence others to fight. In times of deep crisis like we are in, the working class is always auditing its forces, taking its own temperature, assessing the situation, getting ready to see what they dare to do.

These are not moderate times. Moderate solutions are not working. It’s time for radical solutions. It’s time for people who aren’t afraid to be labeled radical and revolutionary.