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Profits, productivity & the fight for jobs

Ford workers give thumbs down on concessions

Published Nov 13, 2009 8:12 PM

On Nov. 2 the United Auto Workers announced that its Ford hourly members had rejected contract concessions similar to those obtained by Chrysler and General Motors earlier this year. A “yes” vote would have frozen wages of future employees at $14 an hour until 2015, consolidated skilled-trades classifications to eliminate jobs, and imposed restrictions on the right to strike for the next six years. The final vote was nearly 3-to-1 against the givebacks; at several plants more than 90 percent voted “no.”

Ford did not have a strong case in the eyes of the workers, who have agreed to givebacks three times since 2005, amounting to $500 million. This year the company posted profits of $2.8 billion in the first quarter and $2.3 billion in the second quarter. Its stock more than tripled in value during the GM and Chrysler bankruptcies as it gained a full percentage point of market share. Ford’s vehicle sales have actually increased compared to sales as of October 2008. Last but not least, tens of millions of dollars in salary and bonuses continue to be lavished on CEO Alan Mulally and other top executives.

On Nov. 1, as the final ballots were being tallied and the outcome was already known, Ford announced its third-quarter earnings. The same company that was begging for lower wages from workers made a “surprise” profit of nearly $1 billion in a three-month period! For the first time in 17 quarters, even Ford’s North American operations showed a profit—$357 million, or roughly $6,000 per worker.

Had the announcement been made a week sooner, even more union members would have given the concessions a thumbs down. “They tell us they are broke, they tell us we need to make all of these concessions, and then this?” asked Nick Kottalis, president and chairman of the Dearborn Truck unit of UAW Local 600 and a leader against the contract changes. (Detroit Free Press, Nov. 2)

While capitalist industry analysts appear “surprised” by the profit news, workers shouldn’t be. Ford has eliminated 53,000 jobs and closed 15 plants since 2006. The company is producing more vehicles with fewer workers, while at the same time pushing down the cost of labor power through wage and benefit cuts. Aren’t these the same old dirty tricks that capitalists have always used to extract profit from their wage-slaves? When productivity goes up, employment goes down, but eventually companies return to profitability. Isn’t that the essence of a jobless recovery? Where’s the surprise?

Using similar anti-worker schemes, but in their case at taxpayer expense, GM and Chrysler also expect to start turning profits by next year or 2011 at the latest. Tens of thousands of workers have taken buyouts in the past few years and left the rolls without being replaced.

The 23,000 hourly UAW members left at Chrysler are again being enticed to quit or retire. The company’s grandiose five-year plan laid out on Nov. 4 offered workers nothing in the way of job security. On the other hand, GM CEO Fritz Henderson stated that there will be no more buyouts at his company and that once laid-off employees exhaust their Supplemental Unemployment Benefits “they basically leave the company. That’s how it works.” (Detroit Free Press, Nov. 5)

What can autoworkers do?

How can autoworkers best respond to the unrelenting predatory attacks on their jobs and their standard of living? Waiting for a change at the top, for an orientation away from concessions and conciliation, will only bring more of the same.

On the other hand, rank-and-file militants could initiate a call for an emergency “special convention,” as allowed in the UAW constitution: “By a referendum vote of the membership initiated upon the written request of at least fifteen (15) Local Unions from five (5) different states or provinces. ... The Local Unions demanding a Special Convention must state the reason or reasons why such Convention is desired.” Clearly, the reason is that, with the crisis of jobs showing no signs of abating, the future not only of union wages and benefits but of the union itself is in jeopardy.

Serious discussions could take place in the period leading up to the vote. There could be networking and caucusing among the most class-conscious activists on the shop floor, leading up to a new strategy and program that would take the outrage and the “them-versus-us” feeling expressed in the Ford vote to the next level. There needs to be a restructuring of the union from below to counter the capitalist restructuring being dictated to the workers.

With their vote, Ford workers unequivocally asserted their right to engage in class struggle with the bosses. To have real meaning, however, this right must be exercised. A concerted struggle must be waged to reverse the concessions granted under extreme duress, to overturn the divisive two-tier wage structure, and to stop the hemorrhaging of jobs and reopen the closed plants.

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