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Autoworkers challenge bosses’ ‘turnaround’ plan

Published Jan 23, 2010 8:39 AM

On Jan. 11 the North American International Auto Show opened to the media. Outside Detroit’s Cobo Center a picket of autoworkers drew attention away from the glitz and glamour with chants of “A job is a right! We’re going to fight, fight, fight!” Their concerns were all but ignored, of course, by the industry’s “star” executives who turned up to speechify.

A presentation by the CEO of Fiat, and now Chrysler, to the Automotive News World Congress employed lofty rhetoric, rich metaphors and allusions to Aristotle, Nietzsche and even Karl Marx. “Recovery, with apologies to Karl Marx, is the opiate of dysfunctional industries,” Sergio Marchionne asserted. (allpar.com)

For workers, including those who withstood the cold to picket two days earlier, the obvious question is, what recovery? Another question, which Marx would surely pose, is for whom is the industry “dysfunctional”? For which class?

Marchionne gave the answer from his class point of view. The European auto industry is “dysfunctional” because, “European manufacturers simply do not close plants. ... The last time a German plant shut down, World War II had yet to begin.” Moreover, “The U.S. response to the crisis has put the North American sector on a more promising track than Europe’s. Chapter 11 [bankruptcy] has both forced and facilitated structural reorganization.”

The message could not have been less subtle: The restructuring must continue! Keep cutting workers, keep closing plants (including this writer’s plant in Twinsburg, Ohio), slashing wages and benefits, and by all means hold those labor costs down! Don’t just exploit workers for profit, do it better and smarter!

The brutal restructuring is not going unchallenged. As Marchionne was speaking, a group of Teamster activists who managed to get inside the hall staged a banner drop and balloon release to protest Chrysler’s decision to terminate its decades-old relationship with unionized car haulers. The switch to employing nonunion drivers to carry automobiles from assembly plants to dealerships will save the company a measly $10 per vehicle. Teamsters are getting pink slips and some may soon become another statistic in the epidemic of foreclosures. “Vergogna!” shouted Teamster activist Matteo Columbi before being escorted out of the hall. That’s Italian for “shame on you.”

Resistance to the Fiat/Chrysler restructuring is happening across the Atlantic as well. On Feb. 3 all 80,000 of Fiat’s union workforce will stage a “warning strike” to protest the closing of the Termini Imarese plant, which employs 1,400 workers on the economically depressed island of Sicily. Sporadic strikes have been held at the plant over the past year. The work is to be transferred to a plant in Poland, where wages are lower. In 2008 Fiat posted a profit of 3.36 billion euros — almost $5 billion — the highest in its 109-year history.

Rank-and-file members of the United Auto Workers — whether at Chrysler, Ford, General Motors or parts suppliers — are glad to see any organized opposition to the bosses’ aggressive restructuring. This includes the 3-to-1 rejection by Ford workers of a new round of contract concessions last fall.

Ford CEO Alan Mulally failed to mention that “No” vote on concessions when he spoke Jan. 14 to the Detroit Economic Club. Accepting a “Leader of the Year” award from the Automotive Hall of Fame, Mulally instead took the occasion to heap accolades on each of his immediate subordinates and then thank the UAW for concessions made at the beginning of 2009.

What workers on the shop floor want — regardless of what country they live in — is not praise, thanks or empty rhetoric. We want to keep our jobs.

“Where do we go from here?” is the question that rank-and-file activists — building on the successful no vote campaign at Ford — will discuss at an upcoming conference in Detroit being organized by Soldiers of Solidarity, the Autoworker Caravan and others who oppose the plant closings, layoffs and givebacks.

Martha Grevatt is a 22-year Chrysler worker and UAW activist. E-mail: [email protected]