Workers Vanguard No. 1080

11 December 2015


Despite Worker Fury over Tiers

UAW Tops Force Through Sellout Contracts

In the tug-of-war over equal pay for equal work between the United Auto Workers (UAW) and the auto giants GM, Ford and Fiat Chrysler (FCA) that played out in contract negotiations in Detroit this fall, UAW president Dennis Williams and Co. never let up in peddling the lie that they were “closing the wage gap.” However, the final contracts, which huge numbers of workers opposed, said something else entirely. The UAW tops had to scramble to force their agreements through, even using members’ dues to hire a New York PR firm to sell the sellout.

The contract dispute, which threatened to spill over into a strike at several stages, was centrally over the question of the two-tier wage system that was brought into the assembly plants in 2007. Introduced in the name of keeping the U.S. carmakers “competitive” with their German and Asian rivals, tiers mean that newer workers get paid a fraction of the wages earned by workers who were hired before 2007 to do the same job. This divisive scheme has been used by the “Detroit Three” to slash hourly pay rates and amass the mountain of profits they are sitting atop now, and is hated by the workforce. Workers saw that, with the companies selling record numbers of cars, now was their best chance to get rid of the tiers.

As contracts came up for ratification votes, UAW members at all three companies registered their anger in rancorous union meetings and in balloting. FCA workers rejected management’s initial offer by a two-to-one margin—the first time UAW workers have voted down a national contract since 1982. Union officials gave FCA formal strike notification before forcing through a revamped contract in a second vote. At GM, a clear majority of skilled workers voted against the agreement, fearing that the proposed blending of job titles (“broadbanding”) would lead to heavier workloads under more dangerous conditions and result in wage and job losses. Two weeks later, the bureaucrats declared the contract ratified, with 55 percent of GM workers overall voting yes. Ford workers were offered one-off signing bonuses of as much as $10,000 (up from the lousy $3,000 offered at FCA), but even with that sweetener only 51 percent voted in favor of the contract. At the end of the day, workers at all the Detroit Three are still stuck with contracts preserving the wage tiers—and had new tiers crammed down their throats by their rotten leadership.

As far back as September 2014, during a one-day strike against an Indiana seat plant run by Lear Corporation, workers in both tiers made clear that they were fed up with the whole damn system. “End Two Tier! Start with Lear!” was their slogan. The UAW tops quickly ended that strike with a ruse claiming that they had done away with the two-tier wage scale and trumpeting the “victory” as a model for the upcoming contracts with the Detroit Three. In reality, they had agreed to the relocation of most of the workers on the lower-paid tier to another plant, reclassifying them as “subassembly” workers who would make barely more than the minimum wage.

Workers Vanguard warned: “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” (WV No. 1064, 20 March). That’s exactly what came to pass at the Detroit Three.

The top tier, shrinking fast as workers die or retire, got a small raise, their first in a decade. The second tier, soon to become the new top tier, got promises of raises spread out over eight years (a joke, since the contracts expire in four years) that would eventually bring them to $29 an hour—a dollar more than the top tier previously got. These workers will never receive the defined benefit pension that used to provide a measure of security in retirement for UAW members who survived the backbreaking assembly lines—it will die when the last surviving top-tier worker does. Second-tier workers at GM and Ford will get first-tier health care benefits, but FCA workers will not.

The list of unequal compensation agreed to by the bureaucrats goes on and on. Parts workers at GM were shunted into an entirely new tier, with a wage scale topping out at $22—about $280 a week less than top wages for second-tier assembly line workers. The ever-growing pool of temporary workers, constituting yet another tier, will get paid even less, and not even as much as temp workers are earning today. An indication of how bad the deals are for workers was Ford’s gleeful statement that its labor costs will increase less than 1.5 percent per year as a result of the contract. All workers should be in the union on the same pay scale, and parts workers should be in the same local as the assembly plant they supply!

The desire for equal pay for equal work runs very strong right now in the UAW, and more broadly in the working class. Some 2,000 workers organized in UAW Local 833 are on strike against the Kohler Co. plumbing manufacturer in Wisconsin over this very question (see WV No. 1079, 27 November). But the fealty of the UAW trade-union bureaucracy to the capitalist profit system, as demonstrated by their actions this contract season, is counterposed to the realization of even this most basic tenet of the workers movement. Manifestly incapable of leading any serious fights, these guys are long overdue for replacement. But not by the out-bureaucrats and wannabees waiting in the wings, who have no fundamental difference with the current labor lieutenants of capital in Solidarity House—they all push reliance on the capitalist Democratic Party and the government, in place of independent working-class action.

What auto workers need is a class-struggle leadership forged in battles like the ones that built the UAW and other industrial unions in the 1930s. Such fights would go a long way toward restoring the unions as battalions of the proletariat. Armed with the certain knowledge that the working class has no interest in common with the bosses, a union like the UAW could bring to bear its inherent power to choke off the profits derived from a core industrial sector. It could play a leading role in a broad fight against capitalism’s ravages, drawing in other workers and the unemployed as well as black people and immigrants targeted by the capitalist rulers. To hold to such a perspective against the many obstacles that the bourgeoisie will put in the way requires building a revolutionary workers party dedicated to the overthrow of the capitalist profit system for good and forever.