UAW and Big 3 still fear rank and file

From the November-December 2011 issue of News & Letters:

UAW and Big 3 still fear rank and file

Detroit—The new auto industry contract just ap­proved by the autoworkers created a huge well of dis­content among the rank and file that will surely mani­fest itself in many ways during the four-year contract. Indications of this were evident during the ratification process, when it became apparent in the early voting at GM, Ford and Chrysler that many local unions, and some large ones, were voting to reject the contract.

In the national contracts, wages for second-tier workers will rise $4 an hour over four years, but vet­eran workers will now go 13 years without a wage in­crease. Their signing bonuses—$6,000 at Ford, $5,000 at GM and $3,500 at Chrysler—will save the companies millions, since many benefits are tied to wages. Fear of defeat of the contract resulted in an immediate mobili­zation, by the corporations, the media and, most impor­tantly, the United Auto Workers (UAW) bureaucracy.

They launched an all-out propaganda offensive against the rank and file, emphasizing the “great” gains made in the contract. While the workers rejected the appeals from the companies and the media, the UAW bureaucracy sent out representatives to local unions, and also used social networks like Twitter and Face­book, to convince the workers to approve the contract.

In addition to lauding the gains made in the con­tract, the union warned that failure to approve the contract at GM and Chrysler would lead to arbitration, since the workers could not strike these two companies under the terms of the bankruptcy proceedings. This meant that everything negotiated would be off the table and negotiations would start from scratch.

Another element that weighed heavily on workers was the current dismal economy that has resulted in more than 9% national unemployment and dim pros­pects of finding a job that everyone knows. Even with this situation, there was great fear that Ford workers would reject the contract. They could strike Ford since it did not have to go into bankruptcy and was not bound by the arbitration restriction at GM and Chrysler.

At Ford, there was a serious question about con­tract rejection until the end of the voting—which was at Ford Local 600, the largest Ford local in the country near Detroit with 6,000 members and a long history of opposition to the UAW bureaucracy. This local vote sealed the contract’s approval at Ford.

The approval of the national contract does not nec­essarily mean peace in the industry. There is still the matter of local contracts with management, which have often been the source of wildcat strikes. It is the local contracts that deal with grievances involving everyday working conditions in the shops. These grievances can be more important to rank-and-file workers than wages.

Many wildcat strikes over local contracts have oc­curred. With the reservoir of resentment among the workers over the national contract, which is huge, this anger may well express itself in local contract strikes.

The majority of skilled workers at Chrysler reject­ed the contract, but UAW President Bob King declared the contract ratified since a majority of Chrysler work­ers, both production and skilled, had voted approval. Angry reactions from the workers indicated that King’s declaration of approval might be challenged. When auto executives and the media praise the contracts, the workers got the worst of the deal.

—Andy Phillips

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