Workers Vanguard No. 1075
2 October 2015
Blood, Sweat and Tiers
Auto Workers Oppose Sellout Contract
SEPTEMBER 28—As we go to press, members of the United Auto Workers (UAW) are voting in large numbers against the rotten contract that union officials worked out with Fiat Chrysler. Workers are rightly furious at the union tops for their broken promises, chiefly to get rid of the hated two-tier wage system, a blatant affront to the basic union principle of equal pay for equal work. UAW head Dennis Williams and his negotiating team not only failed to (in his words) “bridge the gap,” but bent over backward to accommodate management, abandoning the expected 25 percent cap on second-tier workers and introducing third and fourth tiers for Mopar parts workers and axle operators. As one worker at Detroit’s Mack Avenue Engine Complex said to the Detroit Free Press, “They promised to get rid of the two tier system and they did just the opposite and created a bunch of tiers.”
Defiant UAW members should throw the contract back in the faces of the union bureaucrats and prepare for a fight for higher wages, good benefits and an end to tiers. Many workers, wanting to get something back for the sacrifices foisted on them in recent years, especially as part of the 2009 bailout of the auto bosses, have shown a willingness to bring their social power to bear by shutting down production. As the clock ticked down to the expiration of the contract at midnight on September 14, many workers were itching to walk out; when the clock struck twelve, UAW members at one parts plant in California reportedly downed tools, only to be told the contract had been extended. In the lead-up to the contract vote at the Fiat Chrysler plant in Belvidere, Illinois, one worker, expressing widespread sentiment, told WV: “If you don’t stand up, you will continue to be pushed down.”
The unions are supposed to be instruments of struggle for the everyday needs of workers; wages, benefits and working conditions are ultimately decided by the relationship of class forces whose interests are irreconcilable. For the workers to prevail, they must make use of the class-struggle weapons that built the UAW and other industrial unions in the first place. A hard-fought battle would deliver a much-needed blow against the attacks on working people across the country.
But Williams and the rest of the union misleaders push the lie that there can be some sort of partnership between the workers and the class enemy. The union bureaucracy subordinates the interests of workers to the profitability of the companies, as Williams made clear last December when he outlined his aims in the contract negotiations: “It is about how we keep the companies competitive.” The UAW bureaucracy also reveals its allegiance to the bosses by its longstanding support to the Democratic Party, one of the dual parties of capitalist rule in this country.
The disastrous results for the union came to a head in the 2009 bailout engineered by the administration of Democratic president Barack Obama with the full cooperation of the union misleaders (who poured some $5 million into Obama’s election campaign). Massive concessions were imposed on auto workers, including a no-strike clause that only expired this year. By destroying the livelihoods of working people and eliminating tens of thousands of jobs, the auto industry was reshaped to make it once again a source of tremendous profits for Wall Street.
The UAW bureaucracy’s perspective of class collaboration has today resulted in a contract that contains multiple tiers and two other giant steps backward for the union: the expansion of profit sharing and the shifting of health care costs from the company to some sort of co-op overseen by the union. Profit sharing gives up wage hikes today for possible (and overall lower) payouts in the future. The worst part is that such schemes, which aim to get workers to “willingly” go along with speedup, obscure the fundamental truth that the capitalists generate profits by exploiting the workers.
Details on the health care co-op ploy are sketchy and workers are correctly worried. The bottom line is that it will let the company off the hook for providing health care and place all liability on the union. The UAW tops are holding up as a model the Voluntary Employee Beneficiary Association (VEBA) trust fund covering retiree health care. Under such trust funds, benefits are entirely at the mercy of the stock and bond markets; it’s like having a 401(k) instead of a defined-benefit pension plan. In the contract summary, the UAW bureaucrats state that a central aim is to “reduce costs in an innovative and sustainable way,” that is, to help the company shaft the workers. One of the big costs the union tops are trying to help the company avoid is the so-called Cadillac tax that Obama’s Affordable Care Act will impose on employer-paid health plans.
The UAW bureaucrats have made a living helping the auto bosses cut labor costs. In the 2007 contract, these labor lieutenants of capital agreed to the slashing of wages to boost the profits of the greedy capitalists who had driven the auto companies to the brink of bankruptcy. It was this contract that codified the two-tier wage structure at the Big Three assembly plants (tiers had previously existed in parts plants). Workers hired after 2007 earn wages of between $15.78 and $19.28 an hour while working alongside top-tier workers paid $28 an hour. While the new contract proposes larger raises for the lower-tier workers, the gap between the top tier and new hires will still be more than $10 an hour. The auto bosses expect all the top-tier workers to retire or die off in a few years, reducing the top level of pay to that of the second tier.
For years, the UAW bureaucracy has justified its sellouts by stoking fears of jobs moving overseas while invoking “America First” protectionism. At the start of contract negotiations in July, shortly after going to the White House to complain to Obama that free-trade agreements are hurting U.S. manufacturing, Williams declared: “Mexico continues to be an issue for us.” The U.S. automakers, like their German and Japanese competitors, always seek to maximize productivity and minimize costs, whether that means making cars in Detroit or Mexico or the U.S. South.
While the protectionist union bureaucracy portrays foreign workers as competitors, if not outright enemies, the way to advance workers’ interests is for the unions to struggle jointly with their foreign counterparts in concrete acts of international labor solidarity. From the standpoint of working-class internationalism, the growth of the proletariat in the Third World means the growth of international allies of the U.S. working class. The burgeoning auto plants of Mexico are integral to auto production in North America, posing the possibility of and necessity for joint labor action between U.S. and Mexican auto workers.
Joint action by workers across national borders, especially when they work for the same company, would clearly be to the benefit of all the workers. A recent series of strikes in Brazil by thousands of auto workers against GM, Ford, Volkswagen and Mercedes provided one such opportunity. The automakers were beaten back in their efforts to force through mass layoffs; if the UAW had mobilized in solidarity, it would have strengthened the union’s hand in negotiations with the Big Three here.
Similarly, a winning fight to improve the lot of workers at the Big Three could boost stalled UAW and other union organizing efforts elsewhere, including in the open shop South, where the low wages for auto workers are an ongoing threat to UAW members. There is an urgent need for a mass, militant struggle to organize the South. This task requires tackling head-on the anti-black racism that has long served the capitalists in dividing workers and weakening their struggles.
The policies of the pro-capitalist UAW bureaucrats undercut the very notion of a union as a vehicle for the defense of the common interests of the workers against the capitalists. What is needed is a new, class-struggle union leadership to mobilize the social power of the working class independently of the bosses and their political representatives, including the Democrats. Such a leadership, forged in the course of strikes and other class battles, would have the union take up vitally necessary struggles, including for permanent jobs for all workers in the plants, equal pay for equal work and a shorter workweek with no loss in weekly pay to create more jobs.
The working class needs its own party—a revolutionary workers party—to fight for its class interests. Such a party would struggle not only for the immediate economic needs of the working class, but also seek to lead broader struggles against the depredations of capitalism, from racial oppression and anti-immigrant bigotry to imperialist war. Through these struggles, a workers party would imbue the class with revolutionary consciousness of its real power and interest in sweeping away capitalism and establishing a workers government.