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Autoworker speaks on UAW contract

Workers World commentary

Published Dec 13, 2008 3:45 AM

Autoworkers need to take a fresh look at their contracts in order to resist further concessions and develop a strategy that does not hold them hostage to the threat of plant closings, layoffs or bankruptcy proceedings. The place to start is with the opening sentences of the contract.

The UAW-GM contract begins with: “The management of General Motors recognizes that it cannot get along without labor any more than labor can get along without the management. Both are in the same business... . General Motors holds that the basic interests of employers and employees are the same.”

All workers who have sweated on the assembly line know in their bones that the basic interests of the boss and the workers are not the same. The business of management is to make profits. The “business” of the workers is to make enough to provide a decent living for themselves and their families.

Management wants to hide the fundamental fact that the interest of the capitalist bosses and of “their” workers is diametrically opposed. It is a class antagonism based on exploitation. Sometimes this antagonism is more muted, at other times more open. With the onset of the current deep capitalist economic crisis, the very survival of the workers and the existence of their union are in question.

The founders of the United Auto Workers knew very well about classes. They built our unions in violent class battles during the 1930s. It was rich versus poor, bosses versus workers, capitalist class versus working class.

A hint of this remains in the first paragraphs of the UAW Constitution: “Managerial decisions have a far reaching impact upon the quality of life enjoyed by the workers, the family, and the community. Management must recognize that it has basic responsibilities to advance the welfare of the workers and the whole society and not alone to the stockholders. It is essential, therefore, that the concerns of workers and of society be taken into account when basic management decisions are made.”

Douglas Fraser, International UAW president at the time of the first round of concessions in the 1970s, decried “the one-sided class war” being waged against the autoworkers. He identified the character of the attacks as being based on antagonistic classes. But his formulation showed he was unwilling to make it a two-sided class war by fighting back. Every subsequent UAW top leader has shrunk from this conclusion to this day.

What would it mean for the UAW to expose the antagonistic class positions instead of lamely following the lead of the auto bosses? It isn’t simply saying no to concessions or going on strike to stop takeaways. When the whole economy is in crisis, a massive depression looms, and the Big Three are threatening bankruptcy, autoworkers are tremendously fearful about losing their jobs. With no alternative presented to them, most will vote for another round of concessions.

If the UAW contracts were to be reopened, the first thing to go should be the entire false “identity of interests” introduction. A bold statement of the true conditions of class struggle on the shop floor and the broader community needs to be proclaimed.

Then the autoworkers need to challenge the “management’s rights” clause–paragraph eight of the UAW-GM contract–which states: “...the products to be manufactured, the location of the plants, the schedules of production, the methods, processes and means of manufacturing are solely and exclusively the responsibility of the Corporation.”

But the corporations have run the business into the ground. At the very least, management has been irresponsible. The crisis facing millions of workers dependent upon this industry calls into question their right to continue to manage. The UAW Constitution demands that management take into account the workers and the community in its decision making.

Even management knew that they had to do something different when the government bailed out Chrysler Corporation in the late 1970s. In exchange for the first concessions contracts, UAW President Douglas Fraser was given a seat on the Chrysler Board of Directors. From a union point of view this was ridiculous. One vote on a big board of bosses and bankers was meaningless.

But from another angle, it was a recognition that the workers ought to have a say in running the company in light of the new, dire conditions and the taxpayer-funded bailout.

How much worse are things today! As the crisis deepens workers must think about whether they “can’t do without management.” The unthinkable might start looking reasonable. Why can’t workers’ representatives and representatives of the communities in which factories are located be made the new management of the Big Three?

Government funds could be used for plants to be retooled for production of fuel-efficient vehicles. With the need for a massive economic stimulus program being discussed by the incoming Obama administration, the unions and communities can demand government contracts to build mass transit.

The highly skilled and disciplined autoworkers inside the many plants still in existence can quickly adjust to produce whatever is needed to rebuild the failing infrastructure of the U.S. Many new jobs would be created.

None of this can happen without a struggle. The place to start is with an understanding by the autoworkers–and all workers–of their importance and their power as the working class.

Sole worked for GM Fleetwood from 1971 until the plant closed in 1987. He is vested in the GM retirement fund. He is currently president of UAW Local 2334 in Detroit.