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Autoworkers and the new contracts

Published Nov 7, 2011 8:30 PM

At its peak, the United Auto Workers union boasted 1.5 million members. Hundreds of thousands of autoworkers were scattered in plants across the country, making parts and building vehicles. Since the high tech revolution of the 1980s, numerous plants have been closed. The UAW now has a mere 112,000 members at Ford, General Motors and Chrysler combined. This shrunken workforce can produce as many cars and trucks as the mighty army of bygone days, with the bosses pocketing huge cost savings.

Nevertheless, the driving force under capitalism is to maximize profits and push wages down. When GM, Ford and Chrysler entered negotiations with the UAW, they were determined to block pay increases.

UAW International President Bob King and the union’s International Executive Board have sought a “partnership” with the companies to assure profitability and competitiveness. They negotiated four-year contracts that freeze most workers’ pay and uphold major concessions agreed to previously. Workers have not had a raise in five or more years and lost the cost-of-living allowance in 2009.

How do you sell a pay freeze? At Ford and GM the enticement was large, one-time and annual lump-sum bonuses. Second tier workers — hired after 2007 and making half what other workers made — were given a raise of several dollars an hour. The UAW leadership told Ford workers that if they voted no they would be stuck on strike for months. At GM they used the no-strike clause to convince workers they would end up worse off if the contract was decided by an arbitrator. Despite alleged bribes and intimidation, over a third of these workers voted no.

On Oct. 26, the UAW announced the ratification of its contract with Chrysler. But the 23,000 UAW hourly workers at Chrysler came very close to rejecting their contract. Chrysler and Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne demanded the same concessions but offered less than half the bonus money as the other two companies. Workers were then bombarded with the message that they could lose everything in arbitration and were asked by union officials to consider Chrysler’s weaker financial position in comparison to Ford and GM.

Workers still wanted to stand up to Marchionne. Then, some workers began to fear that if their plant voted no, other plants would get the work. Up until the last ballot, the fate of the agreement was unknown. Officially, only 55 percent of the Chrysler membership voted for ratification.

Skilled trades workers, who vote separately, voted 55 percent against. The UAW Constitution mandates the union investigate whether the rejection was over what are called “special provisions for skilled trades.” If so, the union is supposed to try to renegotiate those provisions. Yet on Oct. 26, less than 24 hours after the last ballot was cast and without consulting a single worker, the IEB announced that the skilled trades vote was based on “economics.” The contract was declared ratified.

Skilled trades and lowered wages

Once the plants employed huge numbers of skilled trades workers. These jobs paid well and were an escape from the drudgery and monotony of the line. Workers of color and women workers have had to fight hard to get into the trades.

These jobs were highly specialized; a plant could have 20 different trades classifications under one roof. Job security was protected by lines of demarcation defining who did what. As production jobs were decimated by technology, trades jobs were seen as more secure. High tech, the reasoning went, would even increase the need for advanced skills.

The skilled trades “rationalization” in the Chrysler contract, with other names and minor variations at Ford and GM, eliminates lines of demarcation, subcontracts building maintenance and abolishes most classifications. It is the absolute dismantling of the whole maintenance infrastructure.

The model is the GM Lake Orion, Mich., assembly plant, which was featured in a July 11 New York Times article. GM’s half-billion dollar investment allows the plant to build subcompact cars with “fewer and cheaper workers.” Eventually 100 percent of production workers — “fewer” with the latest retooling — will be “cheaper” at second-tier pay, at least $9 an hour less than what “traditional” workers in other plants make.

What the Times doesn’t state is that this plant operates with a crew of just 45 tradespeople per shift. With skilled maintenance cut to the bare minimum, the Lake Orion model risks irreparable damage to tools and machinery.

Just as they have wasted scores of highly productive plants, to cut labor costs the Detroit Three are playing Russian roulette with their own multibillion-dollar investments. This is the modus operandi of capitalism in decline. The capitalist class can only seek to solve its crisis, caused by a system of exploitation, by more aggressive exploitation of the working class.

By grabbing more of the wealth that workers produce, Ford and GM are making record profits and Chrysler expects to make $3 billion next year. After ratification was announced, Marchionne seized the offensive advantage, declaring his intention to eliminate two-tier. Members oppose two-tier, but not on Marchionne’s terms. His implied goal of level wages has outraged workers.

Gone are the days when labor could negotiate gains by insuring class peace. The notion of “partnership” today, with the International union functioning as a broker between workers and bosses, stems from the lack of a class-struggle orientation on the part of the union leadership.

In the long run, the rank and file will have to organize as an independent force — pulling together first – and second-tier production workers, trades workers, retirees, and the broader community suffering from high unemployment — to build resistance to capitalist restructuring.

Grevatt has worked for Chrysler for 24 years and is a member of UAW Local 869 in Warren, Mich., which voted down the contract.