Oct 31, 2011
New UAW contracts are now signed at GM, Ford, and Chrysler. The bosses are ecstatic. “It’s the cheapest contract in decades.”
The credit ratings of Ford and GM were immediately raised, and plans were announced to resume dividends in 2012.
GM happily revealed that retirees’ pensions would not rise at all, for the first time since 1953. And as soon as the deal was done, Chrysler revealed a quarterly profit of 212 million dollars, to add to its 27-billion-dollar stash with Fiat.
Workers at Ford, GM and Chrysler gave very deep concessions in 2009, concessions that were supposed to be temporary, to “help” companies in bankruptcy. But the 2011 contracts made those concessions permanent. And even deeper concessions were imposed concerning “alternative work schedules,” skilled trades, and pensions.
To force workers to accept such losses, the UAW officialdom waged campaigns of fear, lies, confusion, intimidation, and fraud in the plants. Corporate suits simply stayed quiet and let their “partner” swing the votes.
Top UAW leaders packed the contract summary with lists of jobs saved – which were nothing but the work already scheduled for the plants. Even before the Ford vote, Automotive News reported that “internally, Ford allocated all of those vehicles to North American plants before it sat down at the bargaining table.”
The top bureaucrats made up the wildest horror stories about the consequences of a “no” vote. At GM and Chrysler, they fed stories to the media which the media ran with – stories that an arbitrator would take away the signing bonuses. At Ford, they threatened to put Ford workers on strike immediately, and to come back with an even worse contract.
And local officials took these stories and piled on lies on top of lies. They said the Chrysler arbitrator would cut wages $4 an hour. At Ford plants, they said workers would spend Christmas around fire barrels on the picket lines, watching as Ford brought in replacement workers, and their mortgages and car notes went unpaid.
Officialdom arranged voting rules and procedures to suit the situation. In the Ford Rouge plants, voting was spread out over nine days as officials walked the lines and browbeat every worker, and carried out the voting with unsealed pickle buckets for ballot boxes, making the vote impossible to control. At other plants, voting was set up on a Sunday, meaning it kept down the vote.
In the final bit of brazen dictatorship, UAW President King decided that when Chrysler skilled trades voted “NO,” they didn’t mean it. He “determined” that they weren’t voting NO because of the big losses the trades would suffer – and so he declared the whole Chrysler contract ratified, no matter what the skilled trades voted or what the UAW Constitution had to say about it.
But then, what can you expect from someone fresh from dinner at the White House, dining with President Obama and dignitaries on “Texas wagyu beef” and other dishes that King’s membership will never get near in their entire lives?
The onslaught was calculated to make workers feel as if they had no real choice. But early votes at all three companies, before the intimidation and fear campaign took hold, showed that workers’ initial impulse was to turn it down.
At GM, the large Lansing Delta Township assembly plant immediately voted no. At Ford, the Michigan Assembly and Wayne Stamping plants – normally a very strong support for the UAW bureaucracy – voted no by a slim margin, and the Chicago Assembly and Stamping Plants voted heavily no. At Chrysler, the Belvidere Assembly Plant, Warren Stamping, and Toledo Machining put their early votes in the NO column.
After the early NO votes, the UAW bureaucracy, top to bottom, went to work.
There were a few local elected reps who bucked the tide, stood up honorably, spoke the truth, revealed the lies, and encouraged their membership to resist the pressure and coercion. There were rank and file members who did their best to amplify the efforts of those few reps. Their efforts were enough to keep the voting close – much closer than the usual votes on UAW contracts.
That’s important. A strong NO vote can have a big impact later on. In 2009, Ford workers voted NO on the second part of the concessions imposed on GM and Chrysler workers. No coincidence, then, that Ford workers were offered bonuses totaling $11,750 in the first few months of this contract, while GM workers got just over half that, and Chrysler workers got only $1750. Ford’s head of global manufacturing, John Fleming, told reporters afterwards, “We always knew we’d have to pay our workers a little bit more to ratify it.”
U.S. auto workers went through a bitter experience with this contract. But experience, even if bitter, can be a good teacher. Workers certainly learned more about who stood with them, and who stood against them. Those who got active against the deals can see how close they did come to winning, despite the fact that their resources were and are so much less organized than the bureaucracy’s. They can take a longer view and keep active, keep organizing, preparing for the next round of concession demands which will inevitably come. Companies now re-open contracts when they want.
The biggest weapon used against the workers was fear – fear of the unknown. There has been no serious national strike since 1976. Workers have no background of experience. They have not seen the power that they do have when they decide to go into action together.
Most workers were not deceived by this contract. They knew it was a rotten deal. But they need to gain confidence in their own forces – in their own power to throw the scare stories and the rotten deals back in the bureaucrats’ faces.
But a strong minority was ready this time – and they can make all the difference in the future.