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Workers tell Ford Motor: No right to strike? No way!

Published Nov 5, 2009 8:22 PM

Nov. 2—Losing a job is a scary thing for any worker to contemplate. It’s certainly scary for any worker lucky enough to still have a job with union wages and benefits. The fear of job loss has for several years led members of the once-mighty United Auto Workers to accept drastic concessions they normally wouldn’t consider.

Nevertheless, UAW Ford workers have overwhelmingly voted down the latest package of contract modifications, sending a powerful message to their bosses. “We’ve taken enough,” Dan Coll told the Detroit Free Press. “Enough’s enough.”

Coll, a member of UAW Local 600 at Ford’s Dearborn, Mich., truck assembly plant reminded the Free Press reporter that he and 41,000 other Ford workers had just approved major givebacks in March. These included suspending cost-of-living-allowance (COLA) increases and scheduled bonuses, weakening job and income security provisions, sacrificing an annual paid holiday, and break-time reductions that add up to 40 hours more free labor for the bosses each year.

Why, just seven months later, did Ford think it could ask the UAW leadership to convince the rank and file to give up more? Ford wanted the additional concessions that the bosses at General Motors and Chrysler, with the help of the U.S. Treasury, squeezed out of their hourly employees by threatening to liquidate operations altogether. The reorganized GM and Chrysler corporations will be able to freeze the wages of future workers at $14 an hour and impose a no-strike rule on all workers until 2015, even though the current contract expires in 2011.

That’s what Ford bosses wanted and what they said they needed to be “competitive.” UAW International President Ron Gettelfinger campaigned for a “yes” vote on the contract changes—which included a more limited no-strike rule and a bonus of $1,000 not offered at GM or Chrysler—with the argument that “we’re talking about 7,000 jobs that have either been created and/or protected by this agreement.”

“Members at Ford retain the right to strike on every issue—and I say every issue—except improvements in wages and benefits,” Gettelfinger told Frank Beckmann of WJR-AM. “If Ford was to propose a cut, we would maintain the right to strike. That would never even go to arbitration. This has become a flash-point issue, but this agreement is not about that.” (MLive.com, Oct. 27)

Ford hourly workers, who so far are voting down the concessions two-to-one, know better. The promise of job security—or more accurately the threat of job loss—has been used to pass concessions for decades, especially in the 2007 contract and again last March. Yet where are the jobs? At one time Local 600, which led the fight to unionize Ford in the 1930s, had 100,000 members at the sprawling Rouge complex. Now the total number of UAW hourly workers at Ford is 41,000 and falling.

Ford workers want no part of even a limited restriction on the right to strike. Wouldn’t they want to reserve the right to strike to restore COLA, for example, so their pay could start to catch up with inflation? Workers know that without the right to strike they have no leverage—they’re at the mercy of the companies.

That’s why a number of anti-concession leaflets—some from rank-and-file activists and some from local leaders—made the rounds on the shop floors. When UAW Vice President Bob King tried to sell the concessions at the Dearborn Truck plant, he was drowned out by workers chanting “No, no, no!” Only a small number of locals voted in favor of the modifications.

A healthy rivalry developed after 92 percent of the workers at the Kansas City assembly plant voted no. Dearborn Truck workers boasted of a 92.6 percent rejection rate, only to be outdone by a 93 percent no vote in Sandusky, Ohio.

While some locals are still voting as of this writing, Gettelfinger has acknowledged that the concessions will not pass. There are no plans for a revote or for further negotiations before 2011. Seen from a purely electoral point of view, this is a tremendous victory, and not only for the Ford workers. Some GM and Chrysler workers, whose plants are closing even after they agreed to such outrageous givebacks, are cheering the Ford vote.

All UAW members must categorically reject the idea that concessions—especially those that compromise the right to strike—are necessary to “protect and/or create” a specified number of jobs. The right to strike and the right to a job go hand in hand. In fact, both are recognized under U.S. and international law as a result of fierce class battles that took place in the 1930s.

Only the worst misleaders of the working class would suggest giving up one right—the right to strike—in exchange for a dubious promise to save a few thousand jobs. These jobs already belong to the workers as a property right!

Martha Grevatt has worked for 22 years at the Twinsburg, Ohio, Chrysler plant, which is scheduled to be closed next year. E-mail [email protected]