What UAW workers must take back

From the July-August 2011 issue of News & Letters:

What UAW workers must take back

Detroit–Many challenges face the rank-and-file auto workers as the stage is being set for auto contract negotiations in July. Their future is not promising, despite the rhetoric of United Auto Workers union President Bob King that emphasizes the restoration of benefits lost through contract concessions and the General Motors (GM) and Chrysler bankruptcies.

The losses began with the imposition of a two-tier wage system that pays new hires half of what existing workers get and reduces their healthcare and pension benefits. Givebacks for all workers include reductions in pensions and healthcare benefits, and increased worker contributions for both, and the loss of Cost of Living Adjustments (COLA).

Workers have suffered elimination of many seniority rights, with widespread plant closings and thousands laid off. Restraints on production speed-up or overtime work have been removed from the contract, and workers at GM and Chrysler have a no-strike provision until 2015. These concessions have resulted in billions of dollars of profit for the auto companies in 2010 ($6.6 billion at Ford and $4.7 billion at GM) and a reduced standard of living for auto workers.

They face increased intimidation, less safety, more production speed-up and fear due to the continuing unemployment crisis that forces workers to labor in increasingly inhuman conditions. Always present is the threat by corporations to move their plants to other locations or countries, which happens often.

The impact of these concessions has been devastating. Since 2007, just before the Great Recession hit, the number of auto workers had been slashed from 346,000 to 185,000 today–and that number will fall as automated machinery is added to the factories.

This is so because machinery is less expensive than labor, which Marx disclosed more than a century and a half ago, and has increased in tempo and dehumanization for workers under capitalism–and especially so in this automated era.

While King is very slick in his rhetoric about restoring lost benefits, more telling are his pronouncements about cooperating with the auto companies. When King declares that he is in favor of increasing worker productivity, he is expressing the sentiment of the auto executives. He claims that more productivity means more job security and his ability to win greater bonuses for workers. Workers know that it means more speed-up at work and more layoffs. And it shows clearly what the rank-and-file auto workers have known for years: that the union bureaucrats have been transformed into their enemies.

–Andy Phillips

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