Jul 20, 2015
Contract negotiations have begun in Detroit, between the UAW and the Detroit 3: General Motors, Ford Motor Company and Fiat Chrysler. With handshakes all around, the bargainers for both sides were all smiles.
Of course, auto execs were smiling – the three big auto companies are rolling in dough, because their “partners” on the union side helped them amass all that money.
In 2007, the auto bosses reduced the cost of their workers by approximately $15.00 an hour when the UAW agreed to accept a severely underfunded VEBA account for retiree health care, eliminating all further obligation by the auto companies. In the same contracts the UAW agreed to set up a two-tier system, with new hires getting wages roughly half of what then current wages were, along with severely reduced benefits.
Continuing on, the combination of company attacks and UAW give-backs under threats of bankruptcy at GM and Chrysler cut wages and benefits across the board.
Today, the companies pay out roughly half of what they paid seven years ago for the total cost of labor. In 2014, only 5.7% of total North American revenue of the three companies went for all UAW labor costs put together – wages, benefits and even joint programs – compared to 11.5% in 2007 and 11.4% in 1999.
To push these concessions, union leaders and politicians pretended the companies might collapse, go bankrupt and close down all jobs. Didn’t happen.
So what will their story be this time? What lie will they tell to reduce labor costs again? That’s what the companies intend to do.
Union bargainers are sensitive to the fact that First-Tier workers are demanding a raise, after 10 years of no raises, and that Second-Tier workers are vocal about the unfairness of being paid at lower rates for doing the same work. Together with the bosses, union leaders are hinting they will address these issues – even while warning these things can’t be done “overnight.”
Whatever small increase in wages they may agree to, the “bargainers” have already made it clear they intend to cut what the companies pay out in health care costs. In other words, not more money for workers, just rearranging where the old money goes.
Skilled at maneuvering, skilled at presenting a takeaway as a victory, International union leaders quickly reassured the workers that this can be done a number of ways that won’t be too painful.
Auto workers can get an advance look at what can happen to health care by noticing what top SEIU and other union leaders agreed to in recent negotiations for the 105,000 workers at Kaiser health system nationwide. Using the pretext of the government’s so-called “Cadillac Tax” on high benefit programs, they put a provision in the contract allowing union leaders and the company to cut medical benefits in the future. In other words, by voting for the contract, Kaiser workers signed a blank check TODAY for future cuts TOMORROW.
Auto workers can also get an idea of what might happen by looking at the VEBA account set up for auto retiree medical care. The VEBA has cost every retiree, when they reach Medicare age, a cut of over $100 in their total monthly benefits. It has cost them increased premiums, increased co-pays, and much higher costs for everything other than generic prescriptions.
Whatever will be proposed this time, one thing we can be sure of: what the bosses may give with one hand, they will try to take away with the other.
It’s not true that workers have to trade off one thing for another. Workers have fought in the past to improve their conditions and to increase their standard of living.
Why can’t it be done again? Are workers today less courageous than their parents and grandparents? We don’t believe that.
This very year, in addition to auto workers, tens of thousands more workers at the State of Michigan and Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Michigan have new contracts coming up. It would certainly make sense for all three groups of workers to stand together to fight concessions.
With over 70,000 auto workers in Michigan alone, joined by hundreds of thousands of auto retirees and by 30,000 state workers and several thousand Blue Cross workers, a real fight would be possible. There is no doubt that such a fight could attract workers from the City of Detroit and from Wayne County, along with teachers – all of whom have been recent victims of the bosses, Wall Street and the banks.
Most of them live and work in Southeast Michigan. What starts in Southeast Michigan doesn’t have to stay there! It could easily spread elsewhere. All over the country, workers have been under attack, losing what they once had won, watching their standard of living plummet, seeing no future for their kids.
“Restore and More” was the fighting slogan of auto workers in past fights. Don’t expect to hear it come out of the mouths of top UAW leaders. So proud of their “partnership” with the bosses, they think more about company profits than about workers’ standard of living.
That doesn’t prevent auto workers from making this their rallying cry – Restore and More! – a rallying cry for a broad fight that can bring workers back out onto a road that leads UP and not downhill.