By Fight Back! editors
In the midst of the Great Depression of the 1930s autoworkers organized into the United Auto Workers (UAW) through a wave of sit-down strikes and pitched battles with local police and company goons. For almost two generations autoworkers defined what a good job was: relatively high wages, health and retirement benefits and protection against unemployment. Unionized autoworkers set the pace for other workers to improve their standard of living in the years after World War II. But over the last 30 years, the concessions and give-backs by the leadership of the UAW have frittered away these gains. Plant closings and outsourcing have slashed the number of unionized autoworkers from almost 400,000 to less than 60,000 today.
With the bankruptcy filings of General Motors and Chrysler, the UAW leadership has given up even more without a fight. Gone is protection against unemployment. More than a dozen plants will close, cutting 20,000 or more jobs. Pensions and health care benefits will be cut even more. Wages are being cut to match nonunion autoworkers, whose wages are also being cut, leading to another ‘race to the bottom.’ The UAW has agreed to no strikes for five years, giving up the fundamental fight-back for workers.
The ‘new’ GM that emerges from bankruptcy will be 60% owned by the federal government. Contrary to what the right wing is wailing, this is not socialism, but state capitalism. The goal is to ‘restore profitability,’ which means cutting the jobs, wages and benefits of workers, so that the government can eventually sell GM back to wealthy investors.
The federal government is pushing GM to close more than 2500 car dealerships, causing even more job losses. Fewer dealers will reduce competition and lead to higher prices (and more profits!) in the future. Two more auto parts makers (Visteon and Metaldyne) have already filed for bankruptcy and more are sure to follow. Michigan and the midwest, already reeling from double-digit unemployment, will suffer even more.
Rather than organize workers to fight, UAW was holding rallies made up mainly of paid union staffers with the tired old line of “Buy American” in recent weeks. The problem is not imports, it is that GM and Ford have not been investing in U.S. auto plants to compete with new factories built by German, Japanese and Korean automakers over the last three decades. Rather, they have been investing their profits from U.S. car sales to expand production in Brazil and other developing countries. Even as auto sales in the United States were tanking late last year, Ford opened a brand-new, billion dollar car plant in Russia. Further, the UAW has failed to organize any of the new car plants.
The bankruptcy of the UAW concession strategy and attempts to ‘partner’ with the auto corporations is plain for all to see. What is needed is a renewal of efforts to put the UAW and other unions following their path back on a class-struggle basis. This means organizing the workers to fight management, not trying to cut deals or rely on the Democratic Party. It will be a hard road, but it is what must be done.