The Humiliating Defeat of GM Workers Offers Many Lessons about Today’s Trade Unions and Tomorrow’s Labor Struggles
THE END OF THE 40-day strike by the United Auto Workers against General Motors has left many autoworkers across the U.S. with feelings of anger, frustration and some serious questions about where they and their co-workers go from here.
When the strike began on September 16, many of the over 49,000 autoworkers belonging to the UAW were not only supportive of the action, but also very clear about their demands and what they would consider a victory: the end of the multi-tier system, an end to the growing number of temporary workers by giving them permanent status, a rollback of the concessions handed to the company by the UAW in every contract since 2007, a commitment to not close any more plants, and a guarantee that new products are built in the U.S. by UAW autoworkers. Modest thought they are, these demands would have been the first gains that workers would have made in contract negotiations since the late 1970s.
Moreover, because of the practice of “pattern bargaining,” not only GM, but also Ford and Fiat Chrysler workers would have benefited from the fulfillment of these demands.
However, it was clear very early on that the demands of the autoworkers — their open and adamant support for their temporary co-workers, their belief that over a decade of “sacrifice” to keep GM afloat after its bankruptcy and government bailout should be rewarded, and so on — were not shared by the UAW officials chosen to negotiate with GM management. This should have come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the UAW.
The reality is that the UAW as an institution never wanted to go on strike; the reason they authorized it was fear and pressure. But we’re not talking about fear of and pressure from the autoworkers themselves, but fear of and pressure from the ongoing federal government investigation into the close ties between the UAW officials and the management of the Big Three auto manufacturers.
Over the past years, numerous investigations into incidents of corruption, embezzlement and graft by top UAW officials have moved from Regional officials into the heart of the union’s headquarters and uncomfortably close to the office of union President Gary Jones. Several past presidents, vice presidents and regional officials have been indicted or designated as “persons of interest” by the government for their roles either in the use of union funds to enrich themselves or in the receipt of bribes from management to ensure that concession deals are pushed through.
The investigations have so eroded morale and trust among autoworkers that the UAW was desperate and willing to try anything to restore even a small portion of confidence in their leadership, including resorting to a strike — albeit one that was heavily stage-managed.
In many respects, the strike, as organized, was little more than theater. The UAW gave GM ample time to build up a stock of vehicles and other necessary products to help them weather the work stoppage. By the time the action began, GM had a solid supply that could last them 87 days. In other words, even a strike lasting two and a half months would not harm GM’s ability to sell vehicles with desired options, thus allowing them to continue to generate profits while not having to pay for the power needed to produce vehicles (be that the labor-power of the autoworkers or the electricity needed for the machines).
Moreover, it is abundantly clear now that the strike was designed to fail. This is not only because, as usual, it was governed by the “injunction politics” that have robbed workers of their ability to win battles against the exploiting classes for decades, but also because it was never meant to hurt the company or its shareholders (the UAW being a major one). The demands of the workers were never seriously considered to be part of the agenda, only a propaganda tool to keep them “on the line.”
And then there was the mysterious meeting between GM CEO Mary Barra and her top staffers, on one side, and UAW President Gary Jones and Vice President Terry Dittes a few days before the tentative contract was announced. Little has been said or confirmed about this meeting, but what has been leaked centers around two words that no worker wants to hear: Taft-Hartley. If the rumors are true, the meeting was to inform the UAW that if a deal was not reached soon, then President Trump would have invoked the Taft-Hartley “slave-labor” act and ordered autoworkers back to the plants, deal or no deal.
The Problem with Unions
Even though unions represent only 6.3 percent of all workers outside of government jobs, they continue to be seen as the only effective means of fighting for the interests of the class in the workplace. This is understandable, from an historical perspective, but nevertheless a core problem for workers today.
Historically, unions have been seen as a primary means for workers to organize and defend themselves from the daily attacks by the exploiting classes. From the first craft unions of the 19th century to the industrial and amalgamated unions of the 20th and 21st, unions are still seen as the only viable means of securing and ensuring job security and a better standard of living — even if, in reality, none of these are actually achieved.
The enactment of laws like the National Labor Relations Act fundamentally changed the character of unions. No longer were they, or could they be, an organized expression of the demands and desires of workers themselves. Capitalist “legalization,” with its labyrinth of bureaucracy and regulations that demanded a mirror within the unions, transformed them into a collective mediator and negotiator of the price of a worker’s ability to carry out labor. Thus, instead of its main mission being to defend what workers have won in the past, its role is now to create an “equitable” agreement with the exploiters on their terms. “Stability” and “fairness” — and, most of all, preserving capitalist “competitiveness” — is the order of the day. The workers be damned.
In addition, the legalization process took workers themselves out of the very functioning and leadership of unions, with positions above the local level increasingly (and now consistently) being filled mainly by elements from the exploiting classes: lawyers, “labor relations” experts, professional statisticians and consultants. Occasionally, they include a few workers who once worked for a few months on the floor, mostly for color and cover. Is it any wonder that the staff workers at any large “international” union headquarters are often subjected to the most disgusting union-busting methods?
This transformation, which actually began more than a century ago (the first targets being the railroad unions), initiated the process of integrating unions into the capitalist system as the aforementioned collective mediators of the price of labor-power. That transformation also opened the floodgates, accelerating and intensifying the flow of the exploiters’ ideology into the working class.
The dominance among unionized workers of nationalism, sectoralism and chauvinism, as well as the intensifying of the ideology that tells workers they are “dummies” and incapable of running things for themselves, is specifically designed to maintain the class-based divisions that keep all workers in a position of precarity, fear and subordination.
An excellent example of this is the reaction of the UAW and many autoworkers to the wildcat strikes by Mexican workers in the maquiladoras against the Big Three. Last February, when tens of thousands of autoworkers struck in Matamoros against the low wages and horrific working conditions in the factories — two things that autoworkers in the U.S. and Canada have complained about since the beginning of outsourcing — the response of the UAW was to … hold flag-waving nationalist rallies and call for a boycott of products made in Mexico! At a time when cross-border solidarity between U.S. and Mexican workers, fighting for the same demand against the same companies, could have hobbled the Big Three and weakened them in advance of contract negotiations here, the UAW strengthened the hand of the bosses by keeping workers divided along national lines and preventing real unity.
The view of the unions that gains can only be fought for when the companies are profitable does nothing but shackle the well-being and interests of workers to that of their exploiters. Even worse, it keeps workers divided against themselves, even within a single industry. The needs of the working class are subordinated not only to one sector of the capitalists, but even to a sub-sector, where groveling is the only accepted form of survival.
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