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Racism, concessions and the future of the UAW

Published Aug 25, 2010 3:05 PM

In 1942 a struggle in Detroit erupted over who would occupy a new federal housing project named for Sojourner Truth. The complex was located in a predominantly white neighborhood, but the government’s stated intention had been to make the units available to Black tenants. At that time public housing was still segregated.

When it appeared the government would renege and only rent to white residents, Black leaders of the United Auto Workers initiated the Sojourner Truth Citizens Committee. White leaders of the UAW and the Wayne County CIO joined the committee, which held daily pickets of City Hall, in solidarity.

The UAW publicly condemned the violence of Detroit police, who had attacked Black youths defending themselves against a racist, cross-burning vigilante attack. With the solidarity of the labor movement, Black Detroiters eventually beat the racists and moved into the housing project.

Labor-community solidarity against racism — of which that historic struggle was a stellar example — is urgently needed today in the Motor City. African-American unemployment in the metropolitan area is officially 20 percent. Victims of police brutality include a respected imam, Luqman Ameen Abdullah, and 7-year-old Aiyana Jones. At least 45 schools will be closed in this Black majority city over the next three years.

Unions are under attack as well. City workers and teachers are facing massive job cuts. The UAW’s ranks have been decimated, with General Motors having the highest number of jobs eliminated — 107,000, twice the number of current UAW GM employees — since the recession “officially” began in December 2007.

Tens of thousands more have lost their jobs or taken buyouts at Chrysler and Ford. The few thousand workers newly hired in auto are working for half the pay of their higher-seniority counterparts.

The Aug. 28 march in downtown Detroit for “jobs, justice and peace” initiated by the Rev. Jesse Jackson and UAW President Bob King could not come at a better time.

The march coincides with the anniversary of the 1963 march on Washington for “jobs, peace and freedom” where Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. An earlier version of that speech was given in June of that year during a demonstration in Detroit of 125,000. Both actions had the support of the UAW.

Invoking the spirit of the 1963 Detroit and Washington marches, the UAW’s King stated that “It’s time for bold policies that transform this country and focus on everyday citizens — policies that result in jobs for all people in our society and investment in the future of our children by building factories, rebuilding roads, and reducing the economic hardship for millions of Americans. It’s time to rebuild America with jobs, justice and peace.” (www.uaw.org)

Social justice and concessions

Elected international president at the union’s June convention, Bob King has set himself apart from his predecessor, Ron Gettelfinger, by advancing a broad social justice agenda that includes support for immigrant rights, building international solidarity, opposing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and calling for the closure of the School of the Americas. King was heard chanting “Moratorium now!” at an anti-foreclosure demonstration outside Chase Bank in Detroit during the U.S. Social Forum in June.

Yet some grassroots activists in the union are less than enthusiastic about their new, attention-getting leader. Workers in the plants can’t help but notice a contradiction: The UAW leadership seems to be pushing for justice and jobs everywhere but on the shop floor. The membership wants to resist concessions that threaten their standard of living — but they get no support at the top.

These contradictions came to a head in August as workers at GM’s Indianapolis Metal Fabrication plant confronted International officials at their local union hall. GM has put their plant up for sale and the buyer, JD Norman Industries, wants to tear up the current contract and get workers to accept pay cuts up to 50 percent.

The International, behind the backs of the workers, negotiated a concessionary contract with JD Norman. Workers had voted to deny permission to any UAW official to negotiate an inferior agreement — an agreement that would undermine other locals in a practice known as “whipsawing.”

On Aug. 15, after trying for five minutes to address the angry Local 23 membership in Indianapolis, the International representatives rushed out of the hall and drove back to Michigan. Then the membership voted not to even schedule a vote on the contract changes.

For King to have any credibility with the rank-and-file as a champion of social justice, he will have to stop the back-door dealings with the bosses and support resistance to the corporate agenda, which is to drive down wages to Wal-Mart levels.

Concessions have the biggest impact on workers of color and women. At GM, Ford and Chrysler, a two-tier wage structure cuts the wages of new hires in production to $14 an hour while leaving base wages for skilled trades workers intact. White males still dominate skilled trades while the majority women and people of color in the auto industry work the lines.

Fighting racism and fighting concessions should go hand in hand, and should in turn be linked with the fight for jobs. Unfortunately, some anti-concession activists have taken a narrow, single-issue approach.

Gary Walkowicz, who challenged Bob King in the election at the convention, campaigned on only four points: no concessions, no two-tier, fairness for retirees and complete membership authority over negotiations. No one could oppose that, but what about all of the other issues facing the working class?

The campaign took no stand against immigrant-bashing, police brutality or racist discrimination on the job, or even for the right of every worker to a job. How can we win back anything if we have no allies among the workers and oppressed? How can we gain allies without showing solidarity?

Soldiers of Solidarity — which gave the workers in Indianapolis the boost they needed to stop the concessions train dead in its tracks — has sadly not promoted the Aug. 28 march because Bob King is behind it.

The march, behind which a major union has thrown its resources, is urgently needed and should be supported for the many progressive demands it is raising linking workers and the community. The march could be the springboard to launch a broad movement that actively promotes solidarity and fights to raise the standard of living of all workers and oppressed people — one on a par with the united movement that won the right of Black families to live in a complex named for the great warrior Sojourner Truth.

Grevatt worked more than 22 years at Chrysler’s stamping plant in Twinsburg, Ohio, which recently closed, and is now a member of UAW Local 869 at the Warren Stamping Plant in Warren, Mich. E-mail: [email protected]