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Building on ‘no concessions’ vote at Ford

Autoworker activists discuss challenging the bosses’ agenda

Published Feb 6, 2010 8:33 AM

On Jan. 23 over 100 autoworkers met in Detroit for a conference sponsored by rank-and-file activist groups Soldiers of Solidarity, Autoworkers Caravan and Factory Rats Unite to take up a truly compelling question: Where do we go from here?

In the past few years members of the UAW have seen their ranks in the workplace fall precipitously. At the same time, under threat of permanent job loss, workers at General Motors/Delphi, Ford, Chrysler and parts suppliers have been coerced into giving up pay and benefits that took decades of struggle to attain. During the GM and Chrysler bankruptcies workers there gave up the right to strike.

Just to ask, “Where do we go?” implied it is still possible for workers to fight back, and thus posed a viable alternative to resignation and despair.

African-American, Latino/a and white; women and men; retirees and youth, dozens of workers took the floor — not only to voice their anger at the auto companies and compliant union officials, but to search for ways to resist givebacks and downsizing. Participants came from Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, Minnesota, New York and Ontario, Canada.

The largest group of workers came from Ford. A lively discussion brought to life the grassroots, semispontaneous movement that led to last fall’s defeat of contract modifications pushed by the UAW leadership that would have traded away the right to strike for a $1,000 bonus and dubious promises of job security. The concessions — more or less equal to what GM and Chrysler workers gave up during the bankruptcies — went down by a margin of 3-to-1. This was the first time in UAW history that workers rejected contract language recommended by the leadership.

“We don’t want to lose that ability to strike,” stated Eric Truss, a shop floor activist in UAW Local 600 at the multiplant Ford Rouge complex. Truss came to the meeting with his mother, a Ford worker; his father, a Ford retiree; and his sister. Local 600 has a long history of militancy going back to struggles that led to union recognition in 1941.

Other workers described how multiple leaflets began appearing simultaneously, ranging from detailed explanations of why the concessions were bad to those with just two words: “Vote No.” At the same time an unprecedented number of local officials opposed the International’s recommendations. One worker held up a newspaper with a headline on Ford’s profits.

After the Ford workers shared their experiences, Jerry Tucker, a former regional director, reviewed the history of autoworker givebacks going back to 1980.

The discussion continued around the multiple issues facing auto workers. A key issue is “whipsawing” — the pitting of workers in one plant against another, dangling the carrot of new work in the plant to squeeze more concessions. This led to the topic of cross-border whipsawing.

Rather than blame Mexican and Canadian workers for the loss of their jobs, this group passed a resolution of solidarity for a sister in the Canadian Auto Workers union to bring back home.

Additional comments centered on the need to unite with the broader working-class community, to support immigrant workers, and for a labor movement that is anti-racist and anti-sexist. All the discussion tied in to the central issue of fighting to hold on to our jobs, wages and benefits.

The next immediate fight is at five GM plants that the company recently took back from Delphi, its former parts division that GM spun off in 1999. In 2007 workers at then-bankrupt Delphi agreed to major concessions, including pay cuts for nonskilled trade workers of over $10 an hour.

Now GM is demanding the breakup of that master agreement, insisting that each of those five plants have its own separate agreement. Not surprisingly, the individual agreements GM is seeking all contain further concessions, including pay cuts for skilled workers. GM workers won the right to be under one master agreement after the victory of the Flint sit-down strike in 1937.

This could have been a conference where workers merely blew off steam and went home. Instead, building on the success at Ford, they have already begun to resist GM’s latest attacks. The latest bulletin by Soldiers of Solidarity states:

“Workers have to make change happen by strikes, by Work to Rule, by organizing a gang and practicing “protected concerted activities.” Some of these practices make workers uncomfortable at first. Thanks to years of concessions we are rusty at fighting back. But the more you practice the better you get.

“It is the worker who creates the wealth on the job and controls production. If you want workplace justice and some dignity then MAKE THEM DO IT!

“When the wolf comes for your lunch, you don’t have to unwrap it for him, heat it up, put it in a clean bowl, and spoon feed him with a smile. If you feed the wolf (concessions) he will be back for more tomorrow and every day thereafter. Don’t feed the wolf!”

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