Autoworkers Under the Gun

Autoworkers Under the Gun
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Saturday, June 16, 2012

The Yoke of Teamwork: Voting and Profit Sharing

The UAW is like a crotchety old grandfather too pickled to die and hell bent on blowing the family farm on video slots and lap dances.

Rank and file members know what I mean, but for the sake of academics, let me explain.

A rabid scheme to outsmart the video slots is tantamount to the UAW's investment in capitalism, and lap dances is all the UAW will ever get from it's love affair with the Democrats.

Rank and file autoworkers will have to decide whether the UAW can be reformed, or if it would be wiser to euthanize the comatose bureaucracy and organize a new union.

There's a lot of money on the table, about a billion dollars in the strike fund alone.

It's tough to walk away from a legacy of dues earned the hard way. On the other hand, chasing a losing game is a gambler's curse. The stakes are high and the need for a new direction in the labor movement is urgent. More urgent than sacred blood or ideology. We need soldiers of solidarity not philosophy.

Some union activists are convinced that unions can be reformed through elections and that the right slate of candidates can revitalize the labor movement. But without a militant rank and file, new leaders soon find themselves leading an empty charge.

The notion that we can vote our way to victory is lazy and wishful as thinking trout will jump in the frying pan. Remote control is for changing channels, not power structures.

Struggle, not hope, is the real lever of change. The best way to organize the rank and file is with a strike not an election. (Reviving the Strike, by Joe Burns)

Voting for representation is an expression of powerlessness. If a reform slate wins a local union election, less than one percent of the membership is involved. If the rank and file strike, one hundred percent have a stake in victory.

The company doesn't fear a bargaining committee. Neither does the UAW International bureaucracy. They both fear a rank and file that recognizes power is control of production and the only way to prevent scabs from crossing a picket line in the United States is by occupying the target, that is, by striking on the inside.

Now that General Motors is gaining market share and grinding out record profits in North America will that mean more investment in the US? As in new plants? Or will it simply mean more low paying jobs, more temporary assignments, more mandatory overtime, more precarious employment, and more risky retirement?

GM sold more vehicles in China (2,547,171) in 2011 than in the US (2,503,820) But most of GM's profits were generated in North America where operating income leaped from $5.7 billion in 2010 to $7.2 billion in 2011.

So where do the profits come from? More efficiency?

The company and the union have agreed to shorter break times, more flexible schedules, and weak-kneed work rules. But the numbers tell another tale.

In 2007 General Motors sold 3.87 million vehicles in the US and employed 73,000 UAW members which equals fifty-three cars per person.

In 2011 General Motors sold 2.5 million vehicles in the US and employed 48,500 UAW members which equals fifty-one and a half cars per person. Productivity dropped, but profits skyrocketed. What the hell? GM sold fewer vehicles and made more money.

GM's profits in the US weren't the result of manufacturing efficiency, marketing expertise, consumer confidence, innovative design, or managerial excellence. GM profits were hand picked from the wallets of workers. UAW members gave up cost of living adjustments—the single most important economic safeguard in a union contract—and fortified the two-tier wage system by forfeiting raises for legacy members while promising entry level workers an upgraded seat in "the Jim Crow section of this merry-go-round"

The bosses, the so called job creators, didn't improve the product or the process, they whipped the horses and skimmed the cream.

New hires will get raises over the course of the 2011 UAW contracts with the Detroit Three, but after four years they will pull up ten bucks short of the benchmark set by legacy workers and a full life time short of retirement since they don't have a pension or health care in retirement. A robot couldn't work the assembly line until it was sixty-five. Excuse me, with social security age creep that's sixty-seven and climbing.

In 2007 the official UAW web site under the title "The Union Advantage" claimed that nonunion workers in goods producing industries earned $19.62 per hour. That's about what second tier workers at GM will earn in 2015. We aren't sliding backwards, we're getting mugged and buggered by bandits in two hundred dollar ties and Italian loafers that cost more than a set of truck tires.

Legacy workers will face another stiff arm to the chin when they retire. Pensions for hourly workers were frozen at the level negotiated in 2007. My income as a retiree may be fixed, but their's is broken. An autoworker today can't afford to retire.

GM reported that it froze salary pension plans. What they didn't admit is that hourly pension benefits were also frozen. Though hourly workers may continue to accumulate seniority, and thereby pension credits, retirement security is eroding faster than farms in the Dust Bowl.

Salary workers will be compensated with increased bonuses and an extra week vacation as well as a company matching 401-k account. All that hourly workers can expect is a diminishing return on compensation they earned over a lifetime on the assembly line. Their fixed income life style won't begin when they retire, it kicked into reverse gear in September 2011.

New hires are not vested in the defined benefit pension. Instead, they are eligible for a defined contribution 401-k. The rub is, they can't afford to save enough to compensate for the disadvantage. So what do new hires expect when they round the corner toward the golden years?

Retirement benefits in the UAW for both new hires and legacy workers plummet in direct proportion to inflation. Given the accelerating price of gas—on which every retail swipe in this mother truckin' nation depends—retirees stare aghast as their standard of living slides down the drainage ditch that runs parallel to the highway of record corporate profits.

What the hell should UAW members do? Wait for union elections so they can elect new pork choppers? Petition the rigged—one party state—Constitutional Convention? Vote for Democrats, that corporate machine with union labels and Bank of America lapels? Demand economic justice from co-conspirators working with their feet up at Solidarity House, the UAW headquarters for noncombatants? 

Organizing toward reform of the UAW through a Constitutional Convention controlled by the one party state is a prescription for demoralization, apathy, and more head-down-back-bent drudgery. Instead we should raise the demands and expectations of the rank and file for a strike in 2015. But why wait? Start now.

Strikes are illegal in the middle of a contract. But the only strike that is illegal is the one you lose. I'm not talking about losing.

I'm talking about kicking ass and winning things that workers value in their everyday work lives. Things like longer break times and more days off. Things like firing a boss who thinks workers aren't human. Things like slower line speeds and lower production quotas. Things like protecting fellow workers from job cuts, firings, and harassment. These are the battles that strengthen solidarity, prepare workers for a strike, and soften the target by reducing inventories on the car lot and teaching workers to work to rule both inside the company and inside the union.

The trouble with strikes today is that the Concession Cons don't play to win. They plan instead to soften the membership and compromise with management. We don't have to eat that shit.

2015 is too far away. If we want to win, we need to start fighting now. The first thing we need to do is slow down and demand more help and more jobs. The more workers we win jobs for, the more soldiers we have in our army.

The notion that all profits depend on workers breaking their backs so that executives can bring home tax deferred booty by the bucketful is bullshit. The only way we can win equal pay for equal work, a restoration of COLA, annual improvement factors, and a pension for all UAW members is by striking at the heart of vampire capitalism with a stake as sharp as a strike.

The apologists for investors who pay the lowest tax rate of any group in the US and who produce exactly nothing of value say we shouldn't hurt the company. The Detroit Three closed dozens of factories in the last thirty years and we should be concerned about how they feel about us? GM favors Chinese gangster capitalists over crooks in the US and they expect us to act like patriots? Vying for favors is a chump's game.

I'm an alcoholic and a drug addict. Note, I didn't modify the nouns with the adjective "recovering." Alcohol and drugs are my enemy.  I don't pretend that calling myself a "team member" or an "associate" will make the disease less predatory or the enemy less dangerous. The poet George Oppen once said, "The purpose of poetry is clarity." I'm not much of a poet but at least I'm not a bullshitter.

I don't pretend that cooperating with the enemy will make the exploitation of labor easier to swallow. I don't believe that pretending I am someone I am not will strengthen my resolve to resist the temptation of immediate gratification like signing bonuses or profit sharing. I don't pretend that a disease that kills 90 percent of the people it attacks will magically alter its ruthless predatory character if I crawl on its back. A ride across the turbulence of addiction will not be safer if I call the perpetrator a partner.

I'm not a recovering addict anymore than I am a company team member or an associate. I'm a union member and my recovery depends on my commitment to the fellowship of others who are working to defeat a mortal enemy. I am not a company associate, I am a soldier of solidarity anywhere, any time, any place anyone who works for a living confronts the enemy.

Addicts who pretend they can control the disease die from the disease. Addicts who form a partnership with the disease profit from the exploitation of others and leave a legacy as shameful as a two-tier union that collects dues from temp workers. 

It's not for me to decide whether the union can be reformed or not. But it is my responsibility as a writer to call a spade a spade, a traitor a traitor, and a system that depends on the exploitation of labor an enemy of working people rather than a safe sex partner.

Whether one chooses to reform the union or form a new union as did the CIO in the nineteen-thirties, one must first organize. I contend that organizing in the workplace means winning conflicts with management and that if you work in a union shop, organizing for victory includes winning elective office and/or working on committees. Why? Because I am logical and tactical not ideological. I believe in fighting to win not making concessions to fight another day in the dismal future.

Winning elective office or working on a committee may be construed as reform. If it does achieve some measure of reform, so be it. But the purpose of holding elective office or working on union committees is leverage and access to inside knowledge.

The UAW under the direction of Bob King cannot organize because the Concession Caucus gave up everything that unorganized workers want out of a union. If you think the purpose of a union is outsourcing, subcontracting, two tier wages, collecting dues from temp workers, and stabbing retirees in the back, join the Bob King UAW.

If you think the business of a union is organizing workers, then look around at your fellow workers, including the unorganized, and ask what they need. Then fight for it. Fight like you know damn well that compromise kills 90 percent of its victims, that cooperation like denial is, in fact, a symptom of the disease.

The Concession Caucus cons argue that if we don't collaborate with management, the companies will go elsewhere. The facts are indisputable. Since the UAW began its partnership with the company we have lost more than two-thirds of our members. The Concession Cons believe the union's business is selling cars "made in America." The facts are indisputable. GM sells more cars in China than in the US and GM plans to build more cars in China than in the US.

The union's purpose is organizing. We can't organize workers by cooperating with management anymore than we can win a war by collaborating with the enemy or defeat addiction by switching poisons.

I know where my true fellowship is. I don't doubt my purpose because I don't count my blessings in profit sharing or my dues in dollars. Either we all win or we all fail. That's the old religion. If it sounds like socialism or back in the day unionism that's because it works for a living.

Watch each others' backs, or prepare to live side by side on your knees as the bosses apply the yoke of teamwork: voting and profit sharing. 

sos, Gregg Shotwell

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