The Lesson of the Chrysler Rebels


Negotiations between the Big Three automakers and the United Auto Workers (UAW) were anything but predictable this year. Nationwide strikes at both General Motors and Chrysler, union givebacks on an unprecedented scale, and the stirrings of a strong "vote no on the contract" opposition inside the union have shredded the old auto pattern-agreement playbook.

For decades, "the pattern" meant for autoworkers a stable, almost ritualistic set of negotiations for the auto industry. The union would pick one of the Big Three as its strike target, company and union negotiators would retreat behind closed doors to hammer out terms, and then a tentative agreement would be quickly floated to sidelined members and local officers for a resounding vote up.

Concessions, local competitive operating agreements, contract re-openings, and other setbacks chipped away at the pattern’s strength — and auto workers’ wages, benefits and working conditions — year after year following the opening concessionary wave at Chrysler in 1979. But the basics of the script seemed to stay true with each round.

That is, until this year.

UAW international officials and staff no doubt expected that the four-year contract signed with GM in mid-October would seamlessly become the template for UAW agreements at Chrysler and Ford as per the usual pattern. But they hit tougher resistance than expected on their first try at GM and a virtual rank-and-file rebellion on the second at Chrysler.

Pattern gets broken

Though nearly identical to the GM agreement in its concessions, the Chrysler agreement lacked many of the GM’s vague "gentleman’s agreement" job security protections.

According to Bill Parker, president of UAW Local 1700 and the chair of the Chrysler bargaining committee, this omission is particularly painful for Chrysler workers, who had taken concessions negotiated at the local level in return for promises of future vehicle production.

Parker galvanized opposition when he refused to rubber stamp approval of the deal Oct. 10. Unlike the UAW’s GM and Ford departments, Chrysler members have a freer hand in electing their national bargaining committee. Parker was voted in to be a tougher voice at the negotiating table.

But Parker would have remained a lone voice if it weren’t for a host of angry active and retired Chrysler workers who lobbied their co-workers at nearly every plant gate. Hastily written, photocopied fliers were handed out by the hundreds. With headlines like "Solidarity — No Exceptions," they slammed the agreement’s two-tier wage provisions. Another asked, "If we sell out our children, who will buy cars? Who will defend pensions?"

If UAW leaders really wanted a contract that would have been agreeable to the union’s ranks, they could have thrown out the old playbook and called from the new one being written on the shop floor by its own members.

They could have modeled actual democracy by opening up negotiations and allowing members to make their choices directly. They could have prepared members with a long contract campaign and mobilization similar to that of the Teamsters during the UPS strike of 1997.

And they could have looked beyond the bargaining table for answers to the Big Three’s crisis.

Try new playbook

Instead of agreeing to a union-run retiree health care trust, they could have used the political window opened this year to become the motor of a movement for national health care that would solve the costs borne by the struggling auto manufacturers.

Instead of rallying against tougher fuel-efficiency standards, they could have been pushing the companies to end their unpopular over-reliance on SUV and truck sales.

A playbook like that, while risky, could have provided the only way out for an ailing union that seems to have forgotten its past legacy of taking big risks, like the 1937 Flint sit-down strikes that paved the way for bigger gains for working people as a whole in this country.

Without that member-driven leadership conscious of the world around it, the closed-door UAW-Chrysler agreement looks headed for the dust bin. And a growing number of UAW members and supporters are saying, good riddance.

CHRIS KUTALIK is an editor of Labor Notes in Detroit. He can be reached at: chris@labornotes.org


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