UAW Convention: Is the union ready to fight?

On June 5, the United Auto Workers — a union founded in 1935 in a period of tumultuous class struggle — concluded its 36th Constitutional Convention in Detroit. The convention marked the departure of President Bob King, a champion of “partnership” with Ford, General Motors and Chrysler. The acceptance speech of Dennis Williams, the new president who had been secretary-treasurer, took on a more militant tone.

“It’s time for each and every one of us to tell our corporations: No more concessions,” Williams said. “We are tired of it. Enough’s enough!” Yet he also said he would “work with” the companies.

Workers will find out soon enough if Williams’ fighting words are more than empty rhetoric. With contracts with “the Detroit Three” set to expire in September 2015, many autoworkers would like to take the companies on, striking if necessary to regain what they have lost in recent concessionary contracts.

Unfortunately, there was no discussion of strategy during the convention. The gathering of almost a thousand delegates, elected by over 400 local unions, could have been a serious and deliberative four days. Instead, the essential question — whether to continue in partnership with capital or return to the union’s class struggle traditions — was not subject to review.

A heated but healthy debate took place on whether or not to raise union dues from two to two-and-a-half hours’ pay per month. The increase, which the International Executive Board claimed was necessary to bolster the strike fund, was opposed by many rank-and-file members who viewed the union leadership as not delivering. Since October 2007, a two-tier pay structure has kept newer workers making at least $9 an hour less than those with higher seniority, while long-term Detroit Three workers have not had a raise in eight or nine years.

“This membership is divided,” argued Rich Boyer, a former local president and delegate from Local 140. “If we increase these dues now and don’t go to the bargaining table and get significant increases in wages, we are in trouble.” Others argued that the membership, not the convention, should decide the matter.

Higher dues for strike fund pass

Supporters of the increase countered that the union needed a stronger strike fund to win gains at the bargaining table in 2015. The increase passed with roughly a third of all delegates opposed.

Much of the convention had a staged quality to it. Resolutions submitted by locals were not brought to the floor; instead, a package of resolutions prepared in advance was presented to the delegates. In a departure from normal parliamentary procedure, the Convention Rules barred amendments to the resolutions. Thus, for example, a resolution on full employment could not be amended to call for a shorter work week. A resolution on assistance to veterans could not have pro-war language taken out.

For the most part, the resolutions were progressive, raising demands for immigrant rights, marriage equality, raising the minimum wage and closing the School of the Americas. It was important that the convention expressed solidarity from the 400,000-member union to workers and oppressed people around the world. Following the close of the convention, delegates marched across the street to the Crowne Plaza in solidarity with that hotel’s low-wage workers.

It is the capitalist drive for profit that keeps wages low for many hotel, food and retail workers. It is also behind the concessionary demands of the auto companies. It is long past time to scrap the partnership with these enemies of labor.

Martha Grevatt is a 26-year UAW Chrysler worker and was an Alternate Delegate to the union convention from Local 869.