Workers Vanguard No. 931
27 February 2009
UAW Tops Hand Over Hard-Won Gains
Auto Bailout Means Union Busting
For Class-Struggle Leadership of the Unions!
For a Revolutionary Workers Party!
With the most severe economic downturn since the Great Depression growing worse, the liberal and not-so-liberal “friends of labor” in the Democratic Party—the Nancy Pelosis and the Barack Obamas—would have it that now is the time when all must sacrifice. For the capitalist masters of U.S. imperialism, whose anarchic system of production for profit wrought this disaster, “sacrifice” means possibly having to mothball a few corporate jets and forgo a bonus or two in return for receiving uncountable billions in bailout dollars. The real suffering is reserved for America’s poor and working people, who face layoffs, slashed wages and benefits, homelessness and draconian cuts in public education, transportation and welfare.
Atop the agenda of the modern-day robber barons is making the members of the United Auto Workers (UAW) pay for the financial collapse of the Big Three auto producers. From the start, the drawn-out auto bailout proceedings have focused on how best to gut the union, which was forged in the giant class battles of the 1930s. The intent is to reduce the UAW—the union that once epitomized working-class power in this country, the union that for a brief historical period provided its members with something at least resembling a good life—to parity in poverty with the vast mass of unorganized workers in the private sector. Indeed, the companies will qualify for the bailouts only if they lay off tens of thousands of workers and slash benefits.
At the time of the first bailout hearings, we wrote: “We are opposed to the bailout of the auto bosses. A government bailout will be purchased through the further destruction of the jobs and livelihoods of working people” (WV No. 926, 5 December 2008). By the terms of last December’s bailout proposal, co-drafted by Bush’s Treasury Department, the Congressional Democratic leadership and the incoming Obama administration, the first step is in fact to reduce UAW members’ benefits and wages to the level of those in the non-union, mainly foreign-owned U.S. auto plants. With UAW head Ron Gettelfinger playing the part of loyal lapdog to the bosses, you can forget the jobs banks and unemployment benefits at close to full pay, forget the pensions that make a decent retirement possible, and forget the good-paying job.
And now Gettelfinger has gone another step and helped to further endanger health care benefits for retirees and their spouses. On February 23, the UAW announced a deal with Ford to accept half the company’s payments to a union-managed health care trust in the form of virtually worthless company stock, rather than cash. With Orwellian doublespeak, Gettelfinger triumphantly announced that this deal “will protect jobs for U.A.W. members”—even as the Big Three are shedding tens of thousands more jobs.
Two weeks before submitting the mandated “restructuring” plans to the government on February 17, the auto bosses at GM and Chrysler offered to buy out all their hourly employees, with GM offering a paltry $20,000 and a $25,000 voucher for a new car, while Chrysler is throwing in a few tens of thousands of dollars more. The purge of the current workforce will clear the way for the automakers to hire new workers at half the wages, $14 per hour, a concession granted by the UAW tops in the last contract. Saddled with a pro-capitalist union leadership that has for years put the “competitiveness” of the Big Three above all else, since 2006 about one-third of the UAW members at GM have opted to take previous buyout deals and leave the industry.
In the event of an auto workers strike to resist the bloodletting, the bailout deal would allow the Treasury Department to revoke the loans to GM and Chrysler, throwing the automakers into bankruptcy. Exactly: there is no real difference in impact between bailout and bankruptcy; either the workers will concede “voluntarily” or the bosses’ courts will order them to do so. Fear that the companies may go under will be manipulated to intimidate workers into accepting devastating givebacks.
But whatever concessions Gettelfinger & Co. bring to the union membership for approval, the workers must vote them down. To vote for such terms would be to give up the sole advantage offered by unionization, the ability to collectively organize and fight to improve the lot of workers. Those few hard-won gains that remain today will be up for renegotiation tomorrow as the economy continues to go to the dogs. Not fighting will only assure greater misery in the future. The sharks of Wall Street and industry will not end their plant closings and layoffs until they feel assured they can turn a sufficient profit. The Great Depression had its ups and downs, but employment did not significantly improve until the Second World War, which America’s rulers entered in order to cement their imperialist dominance, in the process mobilizing the working masses in the factories and on the battlefields.
The Fight Against the Devastation of the Working Class
Auto workers across the globe are under the gun. Sales in the U.S. and elsewhere have taken a nose dive, and company after company is contracting. Toyota is expecting to report its first annual loss in nearly six decades and, taking its cue from Detroit, has offered buyouts to some 18,000 workers in the U.S. while announcing wage cuts for those who remain.
The crisis in auto is an example of the anarchy and decay that reign in capitalist production in general, to which there is no simple trade-union solution. In their drive for ever-greater profits, the capitalist rulers have looted the wealth of this country and sabotaged its vital infrastructure by refusing to invest in and modernize basic industry like steel and auto. The deindustrialization of the U.S., under way for several decades, has only exacerbated the current crisis.
Black workers are especially at risk. The 1941 strike at the Ford’s giant River Rouge plant in Detroit was a turning point in bringing black workers into the UAW and enabling it to become America’s most powerful trade union. That was then. With all but a few auto plants in the Detroit area shut down for good, black male joblessness in the city hovers at 50 percent. The jails are overflowing and social services and the housing market have collapsed, with the Detroit News (23 February) reporting that the average sale price of a house in the city is $7,000. At one time the capital of the UAW and a center of working-class black America, Detroit resembles New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina; both disasters are the products of racist America’s capitalist order. The current economic crisis will continue to throw millions of workers into the ranks of the unemployed.
In this context, the fight for jobs is equivalent to the fight against the devastation of America’s working people. What is necessary is a massive program of public works at union wages to rebuild the dams, bridges and roads that are in an advanced stage of decay; to tear down and replace the crumbling public schools in the nation’s inner cities; to create an America that looks like a place that its inhabitants could survive in. It is necessary to call an end to the layoffs by shortening the workweek at no loss in pay, as part of the struggle for jobs for all.
All must have full access to medical care at no cost and unemployment benefits must be extended until there are jobs, with all pensions completely guaranteed by the government. Such demands, the elements of which were laid out in the 1938 Transitional Program, the founding document of the Trotskyist Fourth International, will not be granted by the rapacious capitalist rulers. The capitalist state exists to defend the rule and profits of the bourgeoisie. It cannot be reformed or wielded to serve the interests of working people. The catastrophe of joblessness, threatening the disintegration of the working class, can be effectively fought only by a workers movement led by those committed to the struggle for socialist revolution and the establishment of a workers government where those who labor rule.
While auto workers are in a precarious situation, people in the U.S. still require cars to get around, and the auto industry is vital to the military power of the U.S. imperialists. The American ruling class is not about to entirely shut down its domestic auto industry. Armed with a class-struggle program that is based on the understanding that the working class shares no interest with the bosses, a union with the power of the UAW could spearhead the fight against capitalism’s ravages, including by enlisting support from the rest of the proletariat and the unemployed.
But Gettelfinger and his ilk in the top echelons of the American trade-union bureaucracy are not going to lead such struggle. Aptly described by the early American socialist Daniel De Leon as the “labor lieutenants of capital,” these types share with their capitalist masters the belief in the inviolability of the profit system, a belief concretized by their integration into the capitalist Democratic Party. While it is possible, although unlikely, that these union tops may be moved to some militancy if their status is threatened, once that is secure they will again betray.
The UAW tops are so fixated on the company’s bottom line that Gettelfinger has promised to grant Ford whatever concessions are given to GM and Chrysler and to work together with Obama to “rebuild” the auto industry. Last February, then-candidate Obama journeyed to the GM plant in Janesville, Wisconsin, with promises of federal aid so that “this plant will be here for another hundred years.” Today, the plant is closing down, and President Obama is considering whether the auto bosses’ “restructuring” plans contain sufficient concessions by the UAW. His auto industry task force is headed by Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, a former Wall Street financier and onetime head of the New York Federal Reserve Bank, who now insists that auto workers accept poverty wages.
It is time for the labor traitors, complicit in the gutting of the unions, to go. The road forward lies in building a class-struggle leadership in the unions to carry out the vitally necessary battles against America’s bourgeois masters. This will be part of the forging of a multiracial revolutionary working-class party dedicated to the overthrow of decaying imperialism’s world order.
Organize the Unorganized! For International Working-Class Solidarity!
Each giveback to the bosses has fueled the withering of the UAW from its peak of 1.6 million members in the 1960s to well under 500,000 today, of whom less than 150,000 work for the Big Three. The trade-union tops give much lip service and little action to the crucial need to replenish the ranks of labor by organizing the unorganized. And a UAW that repeatedly rolls over is hardly attractive to the non-union worker.
But the current assault on the UAW threatens all workers in the industry, from the foreign-owned, non-union plants in the South to the offshore plants in Mexico and overseas. Historically, auto workers in non-union plants were paid more than the unorganized in other jobs as the bosses attempted to ward off the scourge of union organizing. Now, with the slashing of UAW wages and benefits to the level of those in the non-union plants, a race to the bottom has been set in motion, as the cutbacks at Toyota show. In going along with the concessions, the union tops are undercutting the elementary purpose of a union.
The trade-union officials place all their hopes to increase trade-union membership on the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), the card-check bill currently languishing in Congress, where the Democrats who promised their fervent support for the bill are in command. This supportable bill would allow workers to bypass the prolonged “secret ballot” procedures currently in place, during which the employers mobilize to crush pro-union sentiment (see “Why Marxists Support the EFCA,” WV No. 929, 30 January). However, while strikes are not categorically proscribed by the bill, the trade-union bureaucrats signal their intent to avoid messy class struggle by having inserted in it the “right” to demand arbitration to secure a first contract after four months should the bosses prove obdurate during negotiations, thus seeking to beg favors from the capitalist state that they could not obtain from the bosses.
The recent bailout hearings give ample testimony to the fact that such hopes are a pipe dream, as is the notion that the EFCA would safeguard organizing against intimidation by the bosses. There will be no significant and lasting increase in union membership without class struggle. And that struggle cannot go forward without a fight against the forces that divide workers one from the other: anti-immigrant and anti-foreign-worker chauvinism promoted primarily by the union tops and their Democratic Party cohorts, and the race-color caste oppression of black people, which is the bedrock of capitalist rule in this country.
This is dramatically the case in the open shop South, where union organizing cannot go forward without linking the fight for black rights to labor’s cause. In the southern tier of the U.S., the KKK and similar fascist organizations are historically the shock troops of anti-union reaction. Their ultimate aim is the destruction of the class organizations of the proletariat. Meanwhile, the anti-immigrant workplace raids by the Feds in the South and elsewhere have broken up union organizing drives. The union movement must unequivocally stand on the side of immigrant workers, who often bring traditions of militant trade unionism into labor’s ranks, by demanding an end to the vicious deportations and by raising the banner of full citizenship rights for all immigrants. The fight for such demands will set the stage for the mobilization in common struggle of the workers in the auto plants in Mexico and elsewhere with auto workers in the U.S.
GM has manufacturing plants in 35 countries. The best measure of protection for auto workers in the U.S. would be to fight together with their working-class allies in other countries. But probably the only banner the UAW tops have consistently unfurled during the decades-long withering of the American trade unions has been the yellow banner of poisonous chauvinism: “American Jobs for American Workers.” Such protectionism undermines struggle by poisoning class consciousness and solidarity, scapegoating foreign workers for the loss of jobs in the U.S. while reinforcing illusions in the American capitalists.
In the service of motivating cutbacks at the UAW National Convention three years ago, Gettelfinger railed against the non-Big Three multinational corporations that jail union supporters, lock workers in factories and “tolerate young children being forced to work 12 hours or more a day” overseas while seeking to “impose poverty-level wages on workers” in the U.S. A particular target of for Gettelfinger is the Chinese deformed workers state, which he condemned in a speech he gave a month later for its “repression of basic worker and human rights.”
Gettelfinger, like his bureaucratic peers, joins America’s rulers in their mission to restore capitalist rule in all those societies where it was overthrown, primarily targeting the Chinese bureaucratically deformed workers state but also Cuba, Vietnam and North Korea. In this quest, he joins with representatives of the now-ruling Democratic Party who seek to turn up the pressure against China in the service of counterrevolution. He would sabotage the militant struggles of the Chinese proletariat against the encroachments of capitalism there, encroachments fostered by the venal bureaucratic caste running China, while bolstering the authority of the very American imperialists who are attacking working people in the U.S.
Albeit on different scales, both the UAW and the workers state in China are the fruits of historic victories for the proletariat. One resulted from the formation of industrial unions in the U.S. during the 1930s, the other from the expropriation of capitalist rule in the 1949 Chinese Revolution. Both must be defended unconditionally from attacks that seek to undo these gains, despite the fact that each is led by a bureaucratic layer that puts the gains in jeopardy. The bureaucratic misleaders of the trade unions here must be driven out of their positions of leadership and replaced by a class-struggle leadership committed to the overthrow of the American imperialist order through socialist revolution. The bureaucratic caste in China must be ousted by a proletarian political revolution in order to preserve and expand the working-class property forms established following the Chinese Revolution.
Reformist Nationalization Schemes
Besotted by illusions in the reform of the imperialist order are organizations like the International Socialist Organization (ISO) and Workers World Party (WWP) that dress socialism in the garb of a Swedish-style capitalist welfare state. For the ISO, it is only necessary to appeal to the chief of U.S. imperialism to nationalize troubled industries: “Why should the government hand over $15 billion in loans to incompetent executives when it could take over the auto companies outright for roughly the same amount of money—and put the workers who know them from the bottom up in charge of transforming the U.S. car industry?” (Socialist Worker online, 9 December 2008). For its part, the WWP writes in the 31 January issue of its paper, “It’s time the union leadership advance the slogan of workers’ control.”
Nationalization of dying or bankrupt industries is a reform that has long been used by capitalist governments elsewhere to buy off working-class discontent and prop up failing enterprises. When Chrysler threatened bankruptcy in 1979, then-UAW head Doug Fraser drafted a tepid nationalization plan while at the same time pledging to exempt the company from strike action. Whether then or now, full nationalization would simply result in pay cuts, tax subsidies and import controls to make the auto plants profitable. In the end, Fraser settled for a bogus version of “workers’ control”—a seat on Chrysler’s board of directors—and proceeded to shove concessions down workers’ throats, which did nothing to stop the hemorrhaging of jobs.
As we wrote in our article on the Chrysler bailout, “No Government Handout for Bosses! Whatever Chrysler’s Worth—Give It to the Workers!” (WV No. 238, 17 August 1979): “The reformist practice of nationalizing only the least efficient capitalist operations is in a sense the exact opposite of socialist expropriation. Socialist economic planning is based precisely on appropriating from the capitalists the most advanced means of production.” Furthermore, for Marxists, workers’ control of production is an expression of dual power in industry during a revolutionary crisis. Otherwise, it is nothing more than a call for workers to force on themselves the same cost-saving measures as the bosses previously had. Thus, under WWP’s framework, GM workers would soon see the “wisdom” of accepting near worthless company stock rather than cash to fund their retiree health care benefits, while those who labored at one of the ISO’s nationalized companies would have such “solutions” imposed.
Both these reformist groups propose that the working class should be part of an amorphous (and nonexistent) people’s movement that seeks to tame the capitalist beast. For the reformists, who play the part of waterboys to the trade-union bureaucracy, class struggle is to be considered only within the parameters sanctioned by the capitalist order.
Let Capitalism Perish!
The present crisis is not the first faced by a weakened American labor movement. Throughout the 1920s, the craft-based, pro-capitalist AFL union leadership did little to organize those millions of workers in American industry that did the backbreaking work in the open hearths and on the assembly lines. In the four years after the October 1929 stock market crash, unemployment skyrocketed from under 1.5 million to over 12 million, so that virtually any worker could be easily replaced. The working class was torn asunder, confronted not just by joblessness but with homelessness and starvation. By 1933, AFL membership was less than half of what it had been in 1920.
It is normal that at the beginning of a massive economic recession or depression the working class will be gripped by paralysis. In the case of the Great Depression, in 1933 the economy experienced a slight upturn. The next year, citywide strikes broke out in Minneapolis, San Francisco and Toledo, led by Trotskyists, the Communist Party and left-wing socialists, respectively. These strikes set the stage for a large-scale outpouring of class militancy. Workers turned en masse to the very unions that had disdained them to demand organization, prompting a wing of the lily-white AFL tops to form a committee empowered to organize industrial workers, which became the CIO. Once organized, the workers fought the bosses tooth and nail, sacrificing, if necessary, their jobs, their freedom and their very lives.
There is only one possible explanation for this turn to class warfare. The very conditions that grind down the working class, the same conditions that demoralize workers and set them one against the other in a fight to survive—that is, the capitalist mode of production—these same conditions also propel the working class toward unity in battle against its exploiters. As long as capitalism exists, it will generate the conditions that spawn class struggle. It is in the course of such sharp class struggle and through the instrumentality of a revolutionary party that patiently educates the working class in the understanding not only of its social power but of its historic interests that workers will become conscious of themselves as a class fighting for itself and for the oppressed against the capitalist order.
The gigantic class battles of the 1930s carried the American trade-union movement to unprecedented heights and set the stage for the further development of class consciousness in the working class, the most advanced elements of which were receptive to the idea of forming a workers party in opposition to the two capitalist parties. Leon Trotsky expressed the problem succinctly in “Trade Unions in the Epoch of Imperialist Decay” (1940): “In the United States the trade union movement has passed through the most stormy history in recent years. The rise of the CIO is incontrovertible evidence of the revolutionary tendencies within the working masses. Indicative and noteworthy in the highest degree, however, is the fact that the new ‘leftist’ trade union organization was no sooner founded than it fell into the steel embrace of the imperialist state. The struggle among the tops between the old federation and the new is reducible in large measure to the struggle for the sympathy and support of Roosevelt and his cabinet.”
The very leaders of the new industrial union movement, including social democrats and the Stalinist Communist Party, crippled it through their support to Roosevelt’s liberal bourgeois politics. Such links to the Democratic Party are the coffin for the aspirations of an awakened working class. It is urgently necessary to combat and defeat the reformist opponents of socialist revolution, to sever labor’s ties to the Democrats and to build the revolutionary working-class party that will overturn the bloodsoaked U.S. imperialist order through socialist revolution. It is to this end that the Spartacist League, U.S. section of the International Communist League, devotes all its resources.