UAW vs. auto bosses: contract struggle over for now

On Nov. 20, the International Executive Board of the United Auto Workers declared that Ford workers had approved a four-year contract with the company. That same day, the UAW-General Motors contract was declared ratified after the International renegotiated language that is specific to skilled trades workers. GM tradespeople had initially rejected the contract over consolidation of job classifications.

This concluded the union’s bargaining with the Detroit Three auto companies. The Ford contract basically mirrors the GM contract, but with larger annual and up-front bonuses. The GM contract gave bigger bonuses than the contract with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. The more significant distinction was that the Ford and GM contracts, in contrast to the FCA contract, give second- and first-tier workers the same health benefits. The FCA contract, which gave most second-tier workers a path to top pay, was overwhelmingly accepted after an earlier agreement that institutionalized two-tier pay was crushed.

None of the contracts restore traditional pensions to second-tier workers. They have a 401K account, subject to the whims of Wall Street, that does not guarantee a secure retirement. Thus, the UAW’s “partnership” with the bosses is helping the ruling class, who would like to do away with pensions altogether and roll back hard-fought gains of the labor movement.

The UAW pioneered defined benefit pensions. A 105-day Chrysler strike in 1950 raised the slogan, “too old to work and too young to die.” The union won “30 and out” — full pension after 30 years of service — in 1970.

The GM and Ford contracts were not an easy sell, with 42 percent of GM workers and close to 50 percent at Ford voting no. The Ford contract was on shaky ground until the 8,000-member Local 600, representing several Detroit-area units, reportedly voted strongly in favor of the contract. Some Local 600 members suspect fraud.

Stolen wealth by bosses

Why did so many GM and Ford workers oppose the contracts? For one, they compared their share of the wealth they produce to the obscene, record profits of the two companies. In the third quarter of 2015, Ford made $2.7 billion and expects to make between $8.5 and $9.5 billion in profits by year’s end.

GM made $3.1 billion despite losses in Europe and South America, thanks in part to profits generated by UAW members. For many workers it was unacceptable that any of the recent concessions, presented as temporary during the economic downturn, were still in place. Some wanted the cost of living allowance restored or the brutal “Alternative Work Schedules” abolished.

FCA workers rightly felt they had scored a victory by forcing the company and union negotiators back to the table and getting them to equalize rates of pay. Their yes votes reflected that. GM and Ford workers put the contract under greater scrutiny and saw that, not only were tiered wages not eliminated; the new contract created multiple tiers.

Several components plants, separated from the master agreement, have substantially lower top pay. There is a lower pay scale for current temporary workers and an even lower pay tier for future temps. It takes eight years for “in progression” workers to get to top pay, which many will not reach by contract’s end. Workers knew that Ford and GM could easily afford to pay everyone top wages during the life of this contract.

At all three auto companies, U.S. profits are at least double the cost of labor — a high rate of exploitation! Line workers make enough products to pay for their wages and benefits in a few hours or less with tiered wages and benefits. But they must keep working eight or more hours a day to make profits — what Marxists call “surplus value” — for GM, Ford and Chrysler. The UAW leadership refuses to condemn this exploitive relationship.

Workers have leverage at the point of production to gain a bigger share of value. UAW members are on strike against Kohler for an end to two-tier pay. What if the UAW had struck one or all of the Detroit Three, demanding that everyone get the same pay, benefits and pensions by the end of the contract? With car sales at record levels, strategically the union was in a good position. Members are paying higher union dues to support the strike fund. Why the strike-phobia?

The problem is the “partnership” that has defined UAW negotiating strategy for decades. But a rank-and-file movement from below — which we saw in embryo when FCA workers organized to defeat two-tier pay — can revive the militant, anti-capitalist tradition of the 1937 sit-down strikes, making the labor movement decisive in the class struggles to come.

The writer is a 28-year Chrysler worker and UAW member.