Workers Vanguard No. 1064
20 March 2015
Lear Auto Contract Sellout
UAW Tops Tout Two-Tier Bait and Switch
Equal Pay for Equal Work! Organize the Unorganized!
In preparation for contract talks with the “Big Three” U.S. automakers (GM, Ford and Fiat Chrysler) in September, UAW president Dennis Williams has addressed himself to the task of setting what he considers reasonable expectations for the membership. The rank and file is not, it seems, feeling all that reasonable. Workers are well aware that the Detroit auto giants are today swimming in profits, which were amassed by slashing hourly pay rates largely via the agency of the two-tier wage system. They are fed up with that system. Getting rid of it when the current contract expires tops the list of demands contained in bargaining resolutions submitted to UAW locals, according to a December survey by The Detroit News.
UAW members should have more than ample cause for concern over the desire and ability of Williams and his cohorts to take up this fight. Consider the deal reached by the UAW bureaucrats with Lear Corporation, an auto parts manufacturer, last September. Far from ending two-tier level wages as advertised, it packaged the continuation of substandard and unequal compensation in a different manner.
Williams has given a nod and only a nod to the expectations of the membership in the upcoming negotiations. He recently reminded union members that older (top-tier) workers have not received a raise in nine years and that achieving equal pay for equal work with a wage increase is not likely to be achieved, despite the earlier lip service he gave to the objective. At a December press conference, Williams underlined his paramount concern: “It is about how we keep the companies competitive.” This same rationale was given in 2007 when the UAW tops told workers that two-tier wages were necessary to make the Detroit Three competitive with their Asian and German rivals in the “right to work” South, and would preserve union jobs.
Such “America first” chauvinism is the stock in trade of the trade-union bureaucracy. The early American socialist Daniel De Leon aptly described these union tops as the “labor lieutenants of the capitalist class.” The UAW was forged in the 1936-37 Flint sit-down strike, which successfully repulsed a cop assault and defied court injunctions, inspiring workers to occupy production lines in plant after plant across the country. The union was then tempered in the 1941 battles at Ford’s River Rouge plant, where recognition was won by breaking through the racist barriers that blocked white workers from joining hands with their black class brothers. Those socialists and Communists who had been instrumental in these class battles were driven out of the union in the late 1940s by UAW president Walter Reuther, as part of quashing opposition to U.S. imperialism’s Cold War against the Soviet Union.
The UAW International bureaucracy, known today as Solidarity House, reveals its allegiance to the bosses by its integration into the Democratic Party, one of the dual parties of capitalist rule in this country. Although Democratic Party politicos often hypocritically mouth concerns for the wellbeing of working people and the poor, what you usually get is the same raw deal in a seemingly prettier package. In 2007-09, then-UAW president Ron Gettelfinger worked hand-in-glove with both the outgoing Bush administration and with the newly elected Barack Obama to extend the two-tier concession and impose a six-year strike moratorium on auto workers as part of the bailout of the industry. So the workers got the shaft, and the fat cats responsible for the disaster afflicting the auto industry wouldn’t have to dismantle their classic car collections.
At the end of World War II, the U.S. was the only imperialist power to emerge with its industrial infrastructure intact. In that context, the UAW was able to wield its strength to obtain good wages as well as unheard-of benefit packages (full health, mental health and pension coverage). Becoming one of the most formidable unions in the U.S., the union grew to a peak of about 1.5 million members in 1979. Since then, union membership has fallen sharply and there are now less than 400,000 UAW card holders, many in jobs unrelated to the auto industry.
The decline in wages has been as precipitous, especially in parts manufacturing where nearly three-quarters of auto workers are now employed. The wage slashing of entry-level parts workers traces back to the mid 1980s, blossoming into the tier system, which was first introduced at major parts manufacturers like Delphi in the 2003 contract. GM had only recently divested itself of that company and begun to outsource many of its parts orders. Today, auto parts workers make roughly 63 percent as much as those employed in the assembly plants. Additionally, about 14 percent of the workforce at the parts plants consists of agency-provided contract workers (a growing trend common to all industry) whose median wage is just above $10 an hour.
This second-class status tramples on the historical role parts workers played in the organization of the auto industry. To no small extent, the impetus for the UAW’s founding came from the giant 1934 Auto-Lite strike in Toledo, Ohio (then a center of the auto parts industry). Moreover, “just in time” assembly, where there are no inventory stockpiles, gives striking workers in small parts plants considerable clout in their struggles against the bosses. In 1998, a walkout at the Flint Metal Center plant, expanding to the Flint East Delphi Facility, resulted in the shutdown of 27 of GM’s 29 North American assembly facilities due to lack of parts. Just as unorganized and often foreign-owned assembly plants (seven of which are now among the 15 most productive in the U.S.) have driven down the wages of workers in UAW-organized plants, the paltry hourly rates paid to workers in auto parts facilities have dragged down the wages earned by those on the assembly lines. Today, assembly workers earn 21 percent less than they did just over a decade ago.
Such givebacks have infuriated the workers and engendered distrust of the UAW leadership, which last June was met with some opposition when it pushed through a 25 percent union dues hike. The increase was purportedly to build up a strike fund, mysteriously depleted given the dearth of strike action, in advance of this September’s contract expirations. Not a few of the union skeptics wondered how such an increase would serve to entice unorganized workers to join the UAW. Of course, a robust strike fund would help sustain workers in the event the union engages in class battle.
A Victory That Wasn’t
The anger and militancy of the UAW workforce as well as the duplicity and treachery that the union bureaucracy willingly employs to shortchange the workers and do a solid for the bosses was evident in a strike last September against Lear in Hammond, Indiana. At that plant, an integrated workforce of some 760, most represented by UAW Local 2335, manufactures seats for the Explorer and Taurus vehicles assembled at Ford’s nearby Chicago assembly plant on Torrence Avenue. A month after the old union contract had expired, negotiations were stalled; the two-tier system was the sticking point. Workers in UAW Local 551 at the Torrence plant, also aggrieved by the tier system, planned a solidarity demonstration under the banner “End Two Tier! Start with Lear!” at their plant.
On September 13, Local 2335 pulled workers off the job, shutting down Lear’s Hammond plant. Although union bureaucrats had earlier put the kibosh on the Torrence demonstration, its cancellation did not stop expressions of union solidarity. UAW members from nearby factories joined the Lear pickets, and Teamsters honored the lines. By 11:30 a.m., production on the Torrence assembly line was halted. Shortly after noon the next day, a tentative deal was announced. Union officials declared the two-tier wage scale at the Hammond plant dead and gone, trumpeting the “victory” as a model for contract talks with the Detroit Three. Lear also called the agreement a “breakthrough,” a sure sign that the workers got screwed.
To paraphrase Mark Twain, the news of the death of two-tier at Lear was greatly exaggerated. Within days, word leaked that the UAW bureaucrats had omitted a key concession in ballyhooing the deal. The bulk of those in the lower tier would be reclassified as “subassembly” workers, to be shuttled off to a new location in nearby Portage, Indiana, and paid sub-living wages. The union tops had pulled a classic bait-and-switch operation. In 2007, when the UAW struck a deal with Chrysler after just six hours on the picket line, workers called their walkout a “Hollywood strike.” The Lear action was also just for show, a production put on jointly by the Lear bosses and the UAW tops, designed to let an angry workforce blow off some steam before being presented a false bill of goods and sent back to work.
In the guise of eliminating tiers at Lear, the bureaucrats acceded to the creation of an entirely new category of workers making barely more than the federal minimum wage. Under this new sellout contract, workers who remain at the Hammond plant will start at $16.50 an hour and cap out at $21.58. Those at the Portage subassembly plant will start at $12 an hour and cap out at $15.25, well below the starting wage in Hammond. Lear human resources head Tom DiDonato bragged: “That is a whole different rate that makes us economically competitive.” The strategy of carving up the workforce to weaken the unions is hardly limited to auto. A case in point was the 2008 Boeing Machinists strike, during which non-union contract workers, performing jobs once done on site by Machinists, supplied parts for a struck facility in the Seattle area.
In relegating an entire layer of lower paid workers to a separate facility with fewer benefits, the UAW tops have done the bosses a real service. The dissension that the tier system engenders between workers can have an impact on the assembly line to the displeasure of management. For example, Fiat Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne, sounding more like the left wing of Solidarity House than a corporate fat cat, offered: “I do not think that it is a stable environment to promote an environment within our plants when you have two tiers of wages and you have people doing fundamentally the same type of work.” In 2013, Marchionne notoriously threatened to pull the plug on auto production in Italy and ship it elsewhere if union workers did not cave in to his demands.
With the new Local 2335 contract, workers from different tiers won’t be bumping elbows on the factory floor anymore. The tension that worries the auto bosses is dissipated when the second tier is renamed and off-sited. In addition, the solidarity between the tiers that was manifested in the strike is likely to be weakened. The bosses’ hope is “out of sight, out of mind.” Come this September, the union tops are again likely to try to proclaim victory over the tier system while attempting to sell the membership a new scheme to preserve that system’s attack on wages and working-class unity.
For a Class-Struggle Perspective
As a cover for its complicity in the driving down of wages, the UAW bureaucrats engage in chauvinist rants over unfair foreign competition. These outbursts are often in the service of pushing protectionist measures, which abet the efforts of the American bosses to set auto workers in the U.S. against auto workers elsewhere. Solidarity House has done damn little to organize the unorganized (900,000 plus workers are employed in auto-related industries) and has barely touched the foreign-owned assembly plants here. In its attempt to gain a foothold in the South at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, the UAW has circulated union authorization cards that read: “We recognize that our job security and our success as employees are bound up with the success of our company.” It should be noted that the UAW lost its recognition vote last year after agreeing to abandon door-to-door and barstool organizing methods.
Everyone knows that the power of the UAW can be recovered only by a massive campaign to organize the South. This task is impossible without an attack against the race/caste oppression of black people that is the bedrock of the capitalist order in this country; racism has served as a wedge between black and white workers. It is no accident that with the UAW back on its heels, the rapacious usurers are now looting long-abandoned Detroit, the one-time center of the union’s power. Nor is it an accident that the right-to-work South has come North, first to Indiana, then Michigan and most recently Wisconsin, all states with a significant number of auto-related manufacturers and significant numbers of UAW-organized workers.
It needs to be remembered that before the class battles of the 1930s that built the CIO industrial unions, workers had no rights vis-à-vis their employers, except the rights to have the crap beaten out of them and lose their job. The right of workers to organize had to be won on the battlefields of class struggle; the putatively pro-labor laws that were passed at the time came only after the working class had already begun to stir. The purpose of this legislation was to contain militant workers struggle within the framework of capitalist rule.
Thousands of strikes occurred up until the eve of World War II and a giant strike wave broke out in its immediate aftermath. By the mid 1950s, 35 percent of workers in this country were organized. That kind of class struggle is the short-term recipe for reversing the right-wing attacks on the union movement. There is only one long-term solution to the systemic poverty and immiseration of the working masses and the concurrent enrichment of the bosses under capitalism and that is the overturn of the capitalist order by the working class through socialist revolution.
If things look glum for working people now, they looked, if anything, worse at the onset of the Great Depression. Today, car sales are up and auto manufacturers have done some hiring (prompting some recent growth in UAW membership) and are looking to do more of the same. Ford has reached the contract limit for the percentage of lower-tier workers it can hire and may be forced to add new hires at tier-one rates. The exceptions to the second-tier cap granted by the UAW tops to Fiat Chrysler and GM are due to expire in September.
The auto manufacturers do have some money for bonuses and wage increases but are not about to sacrifice the double-digit cuts to compensation that they have achieved with government intervention and the assistance of the union bureaucrats over the last two decades. The craven posture of union officialdom can only encourage the corporate vultures to demand more. Solidarity House wants to oblige the bosses again but not to the point that pissed-off auto workers turn them out of office. The working and poor people in this country who have seen the rich get much richer while their own families get much poorer would undoubtedly be more than just a little pleased if action was taken to turn this state of affairs around. All in all, the situation for auto workers is not unfavorable and a strike in September is anticipated by many.
The class-collaborationism of the union bureaucracy has long threatened the very ability of the trade unions to survive. The disparity between the appetites of the pro-capitalist bureaucracy and the aspirations of dissatisfied workers cries out for the emergence of class-struggle leaders, both to head off betrayals by the union tops and to mobilize union power at the plant level. A militant strike that breaks the chain of reversals that have sapped the strength of the union movement would pave the way for a concerted battle to organize the unorganized. The fight to revive the watchword that workers share no interests with their bosses demands that labor sever its ties to the Democratic Party. Workers need their own party, a multiracial revolutionary internationalist workers party whose goal is not just to improve the present conditions of the working class but to do away with the entire system of wage slavery and to replace it with a planned economy under a workers government.