UAW in crisis: Contracts, corruption and the capitalist state

Between now and Nov. 15, Ford workers will vote on a tentative agreement reached by the United Auto Workers and the company. It basically mirrors the contract approved by a majority of General Motors workers on Oct. 25 after a 40-day strike. If Ford workers accept this contract, the union will seek a similar deal from Fiat Chrysler Automobiles.

The agreement includes plans to close an engine plant in Romeo, Mich., and leaves other plants without long-term product commitments. The basic flaw in the GM contract is embedded in the agreement with Ford — that union members doing the same jobs are paid widely varying wages, with some classified as “temporary employees” for years. Pensions are frozen for another four years. Past concessions have not been reversed.

Rank-and-file autoworkers had high expectations for this year’s negotiations as the auto companies are raking in billions of dollars in record profits and CEOs are collecting hundreds of times the pay of a union autoworker. Thousands of Ford workers will probably cast a “no” ballot. Others will be satisfied with the contract’s provisions for pay increases and a sizable up-front bonus. The vote could go either way.

If the contract is rejected, the UAW leadership might go back to Ford to get a slightly better deal or hold a second vote on the exact same agreement, but making a stronger sales pitch. Or there could be a strike at Ford. The workers’ uncertainty could tip the vote toward ratification.

Meanwhile, negotiations with FCA have a new, unexpected complication: the announced merger of FCA, an Italian company, with French auto company PSA, formerly Peugeot. The new entity will be the world’s fourth-largest auto company. While auto executives claim no plants will be closed, they will inevitably seek to shed “excess capacity” down the road. A key question is whether the UAW will accept a weaker contract at FCA in exchange for an empty pledge to keep jobs in the U.S.

Short-sighted strike strategy

General Motors workers waged a powerful strike — this country’s biggest in 12 years. In 40 days, these workers learned a lifetime’s worth of lessons about working-class solidarity — something they will not forget. That is the biggest win.

Unfortunately, the union leadership did not allow strike solidarity to reach its full potential. They began with weak demands, such as calling for “a clear path” for temporary workers to become permanent employees. Rank-and-filers brought signs with a better formulation: “Everyone tier one!” The leadership instructed local leaders to only allow official UAW signs.

Much more could have been done to expand solidarity. Why didn’t the UAW call a mass labor-community protest to shut down GM world headquarters in downtown Detroit? This could easily have drawn thousands of strikers and supporters from throughout Michigan, the state with the largest concentration of autoworkers. Such an action could have been truly massive if properly built.

While the UAW is part of the global labor federation IndustriALL, nothing was done to build global solidarity. South Korean GM workers — who were on strike about similar issues — sent the UAW a message of support. GM workers in Mexico were fired for refusing to increase production, knowing that it would offset the impact of the strike in the U.S. The Canadian auto union attacked GM for closing plants in Ontario and the U.S. But no reciprocity came out of UAW headquarters, ironically known as Solidarity House.

In response to GM’s plans to shift more of its production to electric vehicles — which have fewer component parts and thus require fewer workers to assemble — the union called on GM to keep building gas-powered cars and trucks. Why didn’t the UAW instead demand a shorter work week for all workers with no cuts in pay? By opposing the shift toward production of electric vehicles, the UAW leadership blocked a natural alliance with the mass movement for climate justice, which counts the auto industry among its foes.

The UAW leadership, which initiated the GM strike, contained the strike’s energy within safe channels that posed no threat to the ruling class.

Trust of rank and file broken by corruption

These negotiations took place in the midst of a multi-million-dollar corruption scandal involving top union officials in the misappropriation of dues funds, accepting bribes from FCA in exchange for contract concessions, and taking kickbacks from vendors. Federal investigators have implicated UAW International President Gary Jones, who has taken an indefinite paid leave of absence from his position. Other current and former UAW leaders and staff have been convicted and are facing imprisonment.

Perhaps union bureaucrats thought their cozy relationship with management would protect them from the consequences of their unethical behavior. Why would the capitalist state go after a union committed to “partnership” with the bosses? Wouldn’t UAW officials’ corporate partners intervene on their behalf? That’s a naive view as the bosses are always anti-union.

In fact, just the opposite happened. A lack of class consciousness and the allure of a bourgeois lifestyle led the union officials to engage in corrupt practices. Virulently anti-union forces in Washington brought down the hammer.

Of course, the capitalist state applies a double standard. Consider the multi-million-dollar salaries of the CEOs of Ford, GM and FCA, the billions of dollars in profits made in the past four years, and the billions of dollars paid to Wall Street in the form of interest. Corporate bosses and bankers appropriate the funds created by millions of hours of workers’ labor power to reward themselves. Isn’t this a form of embezzlement? But it’s perfectly legal under capitalism.

No good will come for the autoworkers from federal oversight of the UAW, a possible outcome of the government’s investigation. The ultimate goal of the capitalist state is to weaken the union, not to help the workers.

Is there a way forward?

Now members on the plant floor are faced with a dilemma. Can they successfully clean up corruption at Solidarity House through a process independent of the capitalist state? Can the membership rebuild their union as the fighting force it once was — the union that occupied GM for 44 days in the famous Flint sit-down strike of 1936-37?

Some rank-and-file activists are discussing how to utilize a clause in the UAW Constitution that allows the membership to call a “Special Convention” with a specified purpose. The purpose could be a rectification process to address the threats facing the UAW, including the crisis of leadership, which is a product of bureaucratic culture and privilege and decades of class collaboration. This goes back to the 1950s and UAW leadership’s purging the left — militant members of the Communist Party USA and the Socialist Workers Party.

The union movement faces a capitalist class hell-bent on keeping labor costs down. Plant closings, outsourcing and each new wave of modernization are intended to shrink the number of workers, who now have years to wait before they can make union-scale wages.

The boom in auto sales, driven in part by easy credit and long-range payment plans for consumers, will run its course. If the auto companies took a hard line at the bargaining table today — when sales and profits are at an all-time high — what demands will the union face when a crisis of capitalist overproduction hits?

All of these concerns could be taken up in a Special Convention, with the stated purpose of breaking with business unionism and embracing a class-struggle-oriented labor movement. Even bringing the proposal to local unions would generate rich political discussion and could raise class consciousness. Holding a rank-and-file driven UAW convention would be a big step forward, not only for the autoworkers, but the broader working-class movement.

Grevatt is a FCA retiree and serves on the executive board of UAW Local 869.

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