Workers Vanguard No. 1162
4 October 2019
Democrats Are a Bosses Party—We Need a Workers Party!
UAW Class Battle Against GM
Permanent Jobs for Temps!
End the Tier System!
OCTOBER 1—With the United Auto Workers (UAW) strike against General Motors entering its third week, union members remain as determined as ever to wage a fight on behalf of not only themselves but also future generations. The profit-gouging bosses, who demand ever more temp jobs, low-wage tiers and higher health care costs, must be made to back down. By acting together through the union to withhold their labor, auto workers have demonstrated a real collective strength. Production at struck facilities has ground to a halt, and both GM in Canada and parts producers across the U.S. have scaled back operations, inflicting on the auto giant up to $100 million a day in losses. It is precisely by cutting off the flow of profits, the lifeblood of the employers, that labor can win real gains. Union members should settle for nothing less than the immediate permanent hiring of all temp workers and equal pay for equal work at the highest level for everyone, while holding their leadership to its promise to not call off the strike before the ranks vote to approve the terms of the contract.
A successful strike could change the playing field for workers far beyond the Big Three and help spark further battles to fend off the bosses’ attacks. Already, this display of union power in defense of its multiracial membership’s livelihoods has attracted support from working-class, black and Latino communities near the plants and is breathing new life into stalled unionization efforts. One Nissan worker in Mississippi, where the UAW lost a recognition vote two years ago, told labor reporter Mike Elk: “A victory at General Motors could really open the door for us to organize.” It could also give impetus to organizing drives at parts suppliers and other manufacturers, as well as in the tech-based “new economy” with its gig jobs.
For more than a decade, UAW members have had to swallow one concession after another. GM, bloated by $35 billion in profits over the last three years, has made no secret of its objective to further slash labor costs to the bone, especially by increasing the number of temps in its plants. These union members earn far less while performing the same jobs as more senior workers. This situation can only fuel resentment and is highly corrosive to the union, as strikers are painfully aware. Many temp workers, known as perma-temps, are strung along for years with the unfulfilled promise of permanent employment, all the while receiving abysmal wages, few benefits and virtually no job protections. So-called flex-temps do not even have a set work schedule from week to week.
Horror stories abound of the brutal reality of temp work. In Lansing, a black temp worker suffered through various injuries during his first 90 days without getting medical attention for fear of being fired. Another temp who gave birth on a Friday reported to work the following Monday. No second-class union membership! A victory in the GM strike could be a springboard for a broader struggle against labor contracting and tiered wage systems.
A strike is an undisguised class confrontation between the workers and the capitalists, who make their profits from the exploitation of labor. As James P. Cannon, the founder of American Trotskyism, observed during the 1936-37 West Coast maritime strike:
“A good deal is said about strike ‘strategy’—and that has its uses within clearly defined limits—but when you get down to cases this strike, like every other strike, is simply a bullheaded struggle between two forces whose interests are in constant and irreconcilable conflict. The partnership of capital and labor is a lie. The immediate issue in every case is decided by the relative strength of the opposing forces at the moment.”
—“The Maritime Strike,” Labor Action, 28 November 1936, reprinted in Notebook of an Agitator (1958)
Picket Lines Mean Don’t Cross
Prior to the contract expiration, GM went on the offensive, including by forcing overtime to increase vehicle inventory, paying for extra security goons and cracking the disciplinary whip. Several strikers described company harassment on the most trivial pretexts, especially targeting black and women workers, who are a major component of the union workforce. One union member in Michigan observed of this attempted intimidation: “I’m a woman and they think they can push me around.” A couple of days after GM workers signaled their resolve to make a fight of it by walking off the job, management canceled their health insurance for a full week before restoring it under pressure.
A strike is won or lost on the picket lines, which must be honored as the battle lines in the class struggle. But the UAW leadership has the union fighting with one hand tied behind its back. Some UAW members have displayed a real appetite to stop scabs, especially the non-union truckers contracted by GM to remove vehicles from plant grounds and items from parts centers after Teamsters drivers refused to cross picket lines. Yet lines have been kept small and porous thanks to UAW officialdom, which has allowed truckers, maintenance contractors and others to enter struck facilities.
Even worse, the union tops have directed UAW members under separate contract to cross the picket lines, issuing them bogus “passes” for that purpose. In the same way, they instructed production workers to cross the lines of Aramark janitors at five GM plants the day before the strike against the automaker began. This policy can only breed demoralization and erode the unity and integrity of the union. Industrial unions like the UAW were built on the very principle that “picket lines mean don’t cross!” To their credit, Ford and Fiat Chrysler workers as well as other trade unionists have walked the picket lines at GM. What is needed to bring the automaker to its knees as quickly as possible is for the UAW to build mass picket lines, reinforced by the rest of labor, that nobody dares to cross.
The defeatist approach to the picket lines on the part of the union bureaucracy reflects its loyalty to the capitalist profit system. The top layer of the organized labor movement, which long ago separated itself from its working-class base, sees the world through the same lens as the capitalists and their government. As a result, the labor misleaders bow before the rules set by the bosses and their Democratic and Republican political representatives.
For its part, the company is clear on what picket lines represent and has marshaled the cops and courts to clamp down on picket activity. In the first week, police detained striking workers from Flint, Michigan, to Arlington, Texas. On September 17, eleven UAW members, including the Local 1853 president, were arrested on disorderly conduct charges at the GM plant in Spring Hill, Tennessee. As the Partisan Defense Committee, a class-struggle, non-sectarian legal and social defense organization associated with the Spartacist League, wrote in a September 23 protest letter to the D.A.: “These arrests are a blatant attempt at strikebreaking.”
Railroad cops from Indiana in riot gear, together with Michigan state troopers, removed union pickets from the south gate of the Delta Township plant in Lansing. The claim was that the picketers were on the grounds of the rail yard next to the plant, and therefore in violation of the ban on secondary boycotts. In Texas, cops cleared out UAW pickets at the Navy Yard, a third-party site where GM had stockpiled vehicles from the Arlington plant for shipment, and Local 276 officials are being sued for having allegedly conducted a secondary boycott. In Tennessee, a court granted GM a temporary restraining order to prevent pickets from blocking plant gates.
All this underscores the class nature of the capitalist state, an apparatus of violence—centrally the police, courts, prisons and military—in the service of the bosses. Some striking workers alibied the cops who dispersed pickets as “just doing their job.” Indeed, and that job entails suppressing workers struggle and terrorizing the ghettos and barrios. Police “unions” are not organizations of workers but of the uniformed hired guns of the class enemy that seek more firepower and fewer constraints to go after labor, black people and immigrants. The cops and their security guard auxiliaries have absolutely no business in the labor movement.
Even before the strike began, federal authorities tried to bully the union into submission. In late August, the FBI, IRS and Department of Labor raided the homes of the current and previous UAW presidents, Gary Jones and Dennis Williams. As part of a widening corruption investigation into the UAW that began under the Obama administration, the government has snooped around in the union’s internal affairs and on September 20 arrested an eleventh person associated with the union. The Justice Department has charged this group with alleged crimes ranging from embezzlement and money laundering to mail and wire fraud. The federal probe is a dagger aimed at the entire UAW and must be opposed full stop. Union leaders should be held accountable, but only by the membership. Labor must clean its own house!
Leadership Is Key
The UAW bureaucrats, like the rest of the AFL-CIO officialdom, say nothing can be done in the face of legal ordinances and court injunctions that severely limit picketing. This position is proof of their total renunciation of the class-struggle methods that built the union.
Some UAW members today trace their family’s union lineage to participants in the great 1936-37 Flint sitdown, conducted in defiance of the bosses’ anti-union laws. Auto workers occupied the GM Fisher Body No. 1 and No. 2 plants, temporarily seizing the very thing the capitalists consider most sacred: private property. The sit-down strikes posed the question of who is the real boss of the factory, the capitalist or the worker? On 12 January 1937, an assault by city cops and security guards to retake Fisher No. 2 was rebuffed in what became known as the Battle of the Running Bulls. In response, the Democratic governor called out the National Guard to maintain “law and order.” Workers ignored court injunctions instructing them to leave and the strike spread to 17 GM plants. After 44 days, the automaker capitulated and recognized the union.
Ford remained a non-union holdout, though, until the 1941 battles at River Rouge. Unlike the other major auto bosses, Henry Ford had recruited large numbers of black workers. He had hoped they would be strikebreakers, but instead the black workers overwhelmingly joined their white class brothers to build mass picket lines when a strike was called. As vividly retold by Art Preis of the Socialist Workers Party in Labor’s Giant Step (1964):
“Vast, impenetrable and immovable barricades of automobiles were set up, blocking off all the main arteries into the Ford fortress. The pickets in their cars even took control of the county-owned drawbridge, thus barring shipment of supplies by water on the River Rouge. Parked bumper to bumper for great distances, and surrounded by massed determined pickets at every vital point, the barricades of cars formed an impassable barrier into or out of the plants.”
Both these strikes were led by young workers with radical social and political views. But by the time of the Flint sitdown, the Communist Party, which played a major role in the strike leaderships, had swung over to supporting the New Deal government of Democratic president Franklin D. Roosevelt. These links to the Democratic Party effectively subordinated the union to the capitalist state. In the late 1940s, UAW head and Democratic Party stalwart Walter Reuther further chained the union to the state through the purge of Communists and other militants as part of U.S. imperialism’s anti-Soviet Cold War. The end result of this process was the consolidation of a bureaucracy in the UAW and the rest of the AFL-CIO that was thoroughly committed to the American capitalist order.
The disparity between the appetites of the UAW tops and the aspirations of auto workers on strike today points to the need to build a class-struggle leadership of the unions capable of mobilizing the mass strength and solidarity of the workers in opposition to all capitalist class forces, not least the Democrats. Under such a leadership, a union with the clout of the UAW could rally broad layers of the workers and the oppressed behind crucial struggles, like a concerted campaign to organize the unorganized, especially in the South, where race terror has historically served to keep unions out. The building of this new union leadership is integrally tied to the struggle to forge a workers party that would fight for quality health care and decent-paying jobs for all, with the aim of overthrowing capitalist class rule and establishing a workers government.
For International Labor Solidarity
Earlier this year, UAW head Gary Jones proposed a consumer boycott of all GM cars not assembled in the U.S. or Canada. This gross chauvinist protectionism was directed against one country in particular, Mexico, a neocolony of U.S. imperialism where GM had just become the largest vehicle manufacturer by volume. These “Buy American” campaigns drive a deep wedge between workers in the U.S. and in Mexico and beyond. They help GM’s efforts to divide and conquer its workforce as a whole, which is part of its purpose in extending tiers and the pool of temporary workers.
The integration of GM production across North America poses the possibility of and necessity for joint labor action of U.S., Canadian and Mexican auto workers. Our comrades of the Grupo Espartaquista de México translated into Spanish and distributed to Mexican auto workers our last article, “UAW: Strike to Win!” (see page 3).
Until today, when a parts shortage caused the GM assembly plant in Silao, Mexico, to shut down, the automaker had imposed speedup on the factory’s union workforce to offset its losses from the UAW strike. At least five workers there were fired after refusing, in solidarity with the UAW, to work overtime. A concrete act of internationalist solidarity in return would be for the UAW to demand the reinstatement of those fired. With GM turning the screws on workers everywhere, the UAW has no shortage of potential international allies. Early last month, some 10,000 unionized workers at the three GM assembly plants in South Korea stopped work for three days to protest a wage freeze and company restructuring.
During the strike, the UAW International bureaucracy has rolled out the red carpet for Democratic politicians, such as Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, giving them the opportunity for picket line photo-ops and campaign speeches. Protectionism is the stock in trade of Sanders, whose record in Congress is also littered with support for U.S. imperialism’s wars and occupations. During his stop by the Detroit-Hamtramck plant on September 25, Sanders thanked striking workers for “having the courage to stand up to corporate greed.” Don’t be fooled by empty platitudes! As a capitalist politician, Sanders is in the business of corporate greed. The drive for profit through the exploitation of labor is intrinsic to the capitalist system that Sanders represents.
The union bureaucracy’s strategy of reliance on so-called labor-friendly Democrats has only spelled disaster. Barack Obama rode into the White House in 2009 with the support of the UAW and other unions. His administration then got its start by showering the banks and automakers with billions in taxpayer money. Carried out in collusion with the UAW bureaucracy, the bailout of the auto bosses was barely disguised union-busting, opening the floodgates to mass layoffs and the further atomization of the workforce.
Having already contracted out the vast bulk of parts production to outside companies, many non-union, GM used the bailout to begin chipping away at the remaining union jobs. Cleaning and other plant maintenance were outsourced to Aramark, although according to these workers, who remain in the UAW, the automaker is now searching for a non-union outfit to replace them. The company has also set up separate entities like GM Subsystems Manufacturing, whose UAW workforce is under a separate contract with a “no strike” pledge that the union tops are currently upholding. Largely as a result of all this slicing and dicing of the workforce, union membership at GM is today one-fifth of what it was in 1994.
Perhaps the most enduring impact of the bailout on the union is the proliferation of second-tier new hires and temps. In many plants, black and women workers fill a greater proportion of these temporary positions. In this society built on a bedrock of chattel slavery, the specially oppressed black population by and large remains economically “the last hired, first fired” and forcibly segregated at the bottom. The labor movement must fight against all manifestations of racial oppression, with the understanding that genuine black equality can only be achieved with the abolition of capitalism.
With their current strike, UAW members have launched a fight against the deepening of the exploitation and degradation of the most vulnerable among them. This country’s capitalist masters will never stop trying to grind down wide swaths of the population, who today are left to scramble and toil away at multiple jobs just to survive. Trade-union struggle, while able to deliver significant blows against the conditions of exploitation, cannot on its own end that exploitation. To win the class war, workers need a revolutionary party committed to the fight to emancipate labor and all of the oppressed from the bondage of capitalist wage slavery. When the working class takes state power and expropriates the owners of industry and the banks, the tremendous wealth of this society can begin providing a decent life to all.