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GM’s Northern Strategy

by AL BENCHICH

The “reinvention” of the “New GM” has begun with the opening of a lithium-ion battery plant in Brownstown, Michigan, near Detroit. The event was remarkable not only because the Brownstown plant signals GM’s return to the production of an electric vehicle but also because, for the first time in about 30 years, GM has opened a non-union plant in the U.S.

The new plant is funded in part by taxpayer dollars, and GM is not rehiring any of the thousands of UAW members who were laid off when their plants closed—despite union promises that workers’ concessions on pay, benefits, and speed of work would save GM and were their only chance for job security.

The plant, a wholly owned subsidiary of General Motors, opened on January 7 and currently employs 25 hourly workers. Last year former GM CEO Fritz Henderson said GM planned to hire new workers to fill 100 hourly jobs at second-tier wages of about $14 an hour. (Henderson, who was fired by GM, is now being paid $60,000 a month as a “consultant” to work 20 hours a month—$3,000 an hour.)

Speaking at the battery plant’s opening, new GM Chairman Ed Whitacre spoke of the company’s opportunities in the transformation to “green” products and jobs. Apparently, GM’s transformation doesn’t include UAW representation, as Ed Niedermeyer points out in his blog thetruthaboutcars.com: “If GM can get away with using non-union workers at a crucial plant that’s supposed to represent the firm’s future, things aren’t looking so good for our friends in organized labor.”

GM appears to have a strategy to bust our seriously weakened union—a move in which the UAW leadership has been knowingly or unknowingly complicit. It’s not hard to understand GM’s objective. The company appears to be emulating the move by Delphi to create a low wage, non-union workforce.

What’s the UAW’s response? At this point it’s hard to determine because the silence from Solidarity House has been deafening. Sources at the UAW International say an organizing drive is taking place at the Brownstown plant.

The hiring at the battery plant is one indication of GM’s strategy and the UAW’s lack of one. Why couldn’t the UAW negotiate the right of laid-off UAW/GM members in the area to transfer to the Brownstown plant?

The same thing is happening at the Powertrain plant in Baltimore, where new work coming in is considered a “stand-alone” operation and new workers are being hired, while laid-off members wait for work. In Baltimore, however, the new workers will be part of the Baltimore local, Local 239.

More Non-Union Work

A second indication of the UAW’s complicity in its own downfall is its agreement to allow GM to outsource work that isn’t directly related to the assembly of the vehicle. GM is not only outsourcing such “non-core” work, but also trying to ensure that non-union workers perform the work.

First, GM joined with Chrysler and Toyota to outsource Teamster car haulers’ work to non-union trucking firms. They have replaced the Teamster drivers at Ryder Truck with a non-union company.

Second, GM appears to be giving the green light to outside contractors to fight union organizing drives. In the past, suppliers were at least told they should be “union-friendly.”

When the UAW agreed to allow GM to outsource sanitation work several years ago, local unions (such as my local, Local 909 in Warren, Michigan) organized new in-plant sanitation workers and negotiated a contract for them—all with little or no interference from the new employer.

Now GM is changing its tune. The UAW allowed skilled trades jobs to be outsourced last year, and according to companies currently bidding on this work, GM has “no opinion” if they should be “union friendly.” This is a sure signal to outside contractors to fight union organizing drives for contractor employees working at GM facilities.

Southern Strategy

History serves as a stern reminder that, indeed, the past is prologue. In the early 1970s the power of the UAW was at its zenith. With 1.5 million members and the power to bring auto production to a halt, the union won remarkable gains for its members. The UAW’s historic 68-day strike in 1970 and the 1973 negotiations with GM resulted in a 13 percent wage increase, improved health care, and retirement after 30 hard years of work.

In response, General Motors instituted its “Southern Strategy” in the mid-1970s. The strategy was designed to reduce the union’s power by duplicating GM’s operations in non-union Southern states, thus allowing GM to continue production in the Southern plants if the UAW struck in the North.

Several UAW organizing efforts in the late 1970s and early 1980s at the Southern plants failed. It was not until the UAW agreed to national contract concessions in early 1982 that GM agreed to card check in the South. Concessions paved the way for union recognition at the Southern plants—but they also led to the loss of most of the major gains made in the 1970s and the continued downsizing of jobs at GM.

Despite every concession by the UAW to save jobs, despite every effort by the UAW to improve quality and productivity, it must now be apparent that concessions will not solve this dilemma. There is no more to give.

Some are fighting back. The Teamsters have taken to the streets to protest the replacement of union car haulers.

But as GM pursues a new “Northern Strategy” to open new high-tech, non-union “green” plants in the UAW’s backyard, where’s the UAW’s strategy?

There has been a vacuum in leadership at the UAW. At no time has anyone in the leadership come forward and advocated a plan to change the downward slide. There has been no Walter Reuther to step forward to demand a 12-point plan to re-industrialize the country through investment in closed plants to build mass transit, high speed and light rail, wind turbines, and all the things we need. There has been only silence.

A new leadership will be elected in June at the UAW Convention. The membership deserves leadership that will lead, by building solidarity within the UAW and the broader labor movement. That is the challenge for our union. We have no choice but to fight back or bid farewell to organized labor in this country. So the question is, Will there be real discussion and debate about the way forward at the convention, or will the leadership continue to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic?

AL BENCHICH retired from GM’s Powertrain plant in Warren, Michigan, after 12 years as president of UAW Local 909 and is actively involved in the Autoworker Caravan group.

Auto workers will be discussing these issues, including the upcoming UAW Convention and conversion to green production, at the Labor Notes Conference April 23-25 in Detroit.

This article was originally published by Labor Notes.

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