UAW agreements ratified — But can union contracts end capitalist exploitation?

After a strike that lasted over 40 days and won big gains, United Auto Workers members have ratified contracts with Ford, Stellantis and General Motors. Of the majority of members who participated in the vote, 69% at Ford and Stellantis and 55% at GM voted in favor of the contracts.

UAW members strike Stellantis at the Sterling Heights, Michigan, assembly plant.

Conversations on the plant floor and among union activists have been focused on what’s in the contract and what isn’t. Pay increases in the 4.5-year contract add up to 25%; in the two previous four-year contracts raises amounted to 6% and there were no raises in the two before those. Unequal and divisive pay tiers among permanent employees are, in most cases, eliminated during the life of the contract, and the lowest paid temporary workers will be made permanent in the first year of the agreement.

Some of the lowest paid workers will see their pay more than double.

Any strides made towards equality in pay and benefits should be celebrated by the whole labor movement. But many of the roughly 36,500 who voted against the contracts are higher seniority “traditional” workers who believe they were shortchanged in favor of newer workers. There are even T-shirts being sold that say “The rich ate the legacy workers” — mocking the “Eat the rich” shirt worn by UAW President Shawn Fain on a Facebook live address during the strike.

Others who opposed the contract thought it didn’t go far enough in ending tiers. Workers hired after October 2007 still do not get a traditional pension and lose their health insurance when they retire. The “30 and out” pension — retirement after at least 30 years of service regardless of age, won through struggles — is still not an option for these “in progression” workers.

The UAW scored a major victory in bringing a number of current and future electric vehicle battery plants — technically belonging to separate joint venture companies — under the master agreements with the Big Three. However, in winning that language the union agreed for future workers at those plants to be paid only 75% of the wages defined in the new contract. This and other special terms for the battery plants could be considered new tiers.

The long term goal has to be a complete break in the cycle — started with a shameful contract concession in 2007 — of introducing new tiers for future workers. This contract is a giant step in the right direction.

Fearing unionization, nonunion auto companies Honda, Toyota, Hyundai, Nissan and Subaru raised workers’ pay after the contracts with the unionized companies were announced. But in at least two companies, Toyota and Tesla, workers are talking union. 

Marx: A strike’s biggest achievement

Much has changed since Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels published “The Communist Manifesto” 175 years ago. Yet this book, one of the most widely read in the world, remains profoundly relevant.

In 1848, the two main contending classes, the bourgeoisie (capitalists) and the proletariat (working class), were still developing. But the working class had begun to wage strikes and form unions. These words are still true: “Now and then the workers are victorious, but only for a time. The real fruit of their battles lies, not in the immediate result, but in the ever expanding union of the workers.”

This is an important concept to keep in mind when analyzing the historic strike against Ford, Stellantis and GM, and the contracts just ratified. The strike engaged, activated and unified the UAW membership. The working class followed the strike; polls showed a 70% to 90% favorable opinion of it. 

Delegations from supportive unions were constantly walking the picket line with their UAW siblings. Unions from around the world sent messages backing the strike and some even traveled to Detroit to show support.

Now it is necessary to hold that unity together and not allow different views on the contract to fracture worker solidarity.

There is another point from Marx that should not be lost, which is the title of a chapter in “Wage-labor and Capital,” the classic Marxist economics primer: “The interests of capital and the interests of wage-labor are diametrically opposed to each other.” Although labor costs are only 5% to 7% of the cost of the vehicle, it is through the exploitation of the working class that capitalists make profits; the higher the wages the lower the profits, and vice versa. 

When union leaders lose awareness of this inherently antagonistic relationship, they tend to favor a more friendly relationship with capital. This is what the UAW membership rejected when they elected President Fain and others with the Members United slate — leading some members to assume that the union could, by striking, win every demand made on the companies.

Capitalism limits what unions can win

Under capitalism, the bourgeoisie owns the means of production. The company bosses, the shareholders and the lenders — finance capital — call the shots. Workers can mitigate the conditions of exploitation by wielding their power at the point of production. But there are limits on what the ruling class will give up, even when a strike is cutting into its bottom line.

Not every strike wins everything. Even after a massive general strike in France earlier this year, the French parliament raised the retirement age from 62 to 64 — meaning French workers have to produce another two years worth of value for the bosses before they can enjoy their “golden years.”

There’s no guarantee that staying on strike longer would have yielded a better contract for autoworkers, although it might have. 

Whatever the outcome, UAW members would still be working for capitalists, who will always try to squeeze more wealth from the hides of the workers, even if it means violating the contract. Then the union resorts to the grievance procedure, hoping to get the company to back down. Only some grievances are “strikeable.” Fortunately, the new contract allows strikes over plant closings.

To finally put an end to capitalist exploitation, the working class must fight for the end of capitalism altogether. That is its historic task. Resisting attempts to divide workers and building class-wide unity on a global level is a necessary step in transforming society from capitalism to socialism.

Martha Grevatt is a UAW Stellantis retiree.

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