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What Can We Learn from the American Axle Strike?

The aftershocks of the late-May defeat of the American Axle and Manufacturing (AAM) strike will be felt in the unionized sections of the auto industry—and beyond—for years to come. Swinging in line with the deep concessions made in the Big 3 contract settlements last fall, the AAM deal effectively completes the gutting of union contracts in the auto parts industry.

Close to two-thirds of all auto workers were union in the early 1980s; by 2006 that number had shrunk to just under 30 percent. Once a United Auto Workers stronghold, the parts sector in the past two decades has been the vanguard of the union’s decline.

Workers, not abstract markers of union strength, will be receiving the lion’s share of the pain, however. Givebacks are expected to reduce most surviving American Axle workers to a new lower tier of disposable jobs at halved wage scales before the next contract expires in 2012. Roughly one-third are estimated by AAM local members to retire or take the buyout in the 45-day window after ratification alone.

On a larger social scale, the setback for AAM workers—whose workforce includes a high percentage of Black workers–is another high-profile leap backwards in the rapid decline of well-paid work for Black blue collar workers. Layoffs, wage/benefits cuts, and pension concessions have disproportionately hit African Americans, who held down 2 million of the country’s 20 million manufacturing as recently as 2000. Three short years later, Black workers had already lost more than 300,000 of those jobs.

The steep givebacks at AAM will cut current workers’ wages in half and eliminate pensions for new hires (see Labor Notes June 2008). Workers estimate that a third will soon retire or take a buyout rather than work for these wages.

And AAM managers have added to the bitterness with a tough crackdown on work rules. “Managers were told to break us,” said Sylvia Moore, a skilled-trades worker at Detroit Axle, to a crowd of 250 supporters at a June 14 tribute dinner for the strikers. “We’re not even allowed to talk to each other on the line anymore. You talk, you get written up.”

BEYOND MOURNING

Faced with setbacks of such magnitude, old union warhorses might echo Joe Hill’s ghost: “Don’t mourn, organize!” But winning such fights is possible only if unions take stock, learn the lessons, and change course.

The UAW has a strike fund of $1 billion, and AAM was profitable. The strike shut down 35 General Motors plants that rely on AAM parts in some way. The union had huge economic leverage and yet it lost the strike. What could it have done to win?

Even if the union had done everything right, this strike was no slam dunk. Wages were already low at AAM’s union and non-union competitors. CEO Dick Dauch was known for his hard-headedness, and he had acquired plants in Mexico and lower-wage ones in the U.S. outside the UAW’s master agreement.

But the UAW did not use the considerable advantages it had. One seed of victory was a local membership open to action. As the strike wore on, some members in Detroit spoke up for blocking truck deliveries, holding community rallies, or civil disobedience at the plant gates.

In a state with one of the highest union densities in the country, the union could have tapped thousands to come out for rallies or to swell picket lines. The UAW alone has well over 100,000 members in the immediate area.

But instead of keeping the pressure on AAM through such actions, union tops wavered. The UAW International had called for a large community rally in mid-April in downtown Detroit. But after Dauch requested that they call it off, officials dutifully agreed to indefinitely “postpone” the action.

Many rank and filers saw the cancellation as a betrayal, and the olive branch to Dauch had no effect, as negotiations dragged on for weeks longer.

“I was so angry that the International had cancelled the rally,” said Ada Walker of Local 235. Walker was arrested at a 1,500-member-strong rally that Local 235 organized on its own, in Detroit. The rally shut down Holbrook Avenue, which runs through Detroit Axle and past corporate headquarters, for several hours.

CONTRACT CAMPAIGN

Besides tactics during the strike, UAW leaders could have put the heat on before the contract expired—relying on members like Walker.

Contract campaigns are not a radical notion; the UAW could have cribbed from the mobilization manuals of CWA, UNITE HERE, or SEIU. The best of these campaigns rely on a full-court press. Member-to-member networks, contract action teams, informational pickets, rallies inside the workplace, shop floor actions, media blitzes, working-to-rule, floods of grievances, and other creative tactics fit together in a long-term fight that involves members early on.

Strong contract campaigns sometimes begin as early as a year and a half before expiration, and escalate over a time frame that keeps pace with tactics at the bargaining table. A key factor is keeping members informed and participating with a transparent negotiating strategy.

In 2006, more than a year before expiration, Dauch had demanded concessions, and when the UAW refused to open the contract, he threatened to put no new work into the five union plants under the master contract. That early warning should have been the starting point of a contract campaign.

Key tactics could have been working-to-rule and an overtime ban. This would have reduced the stockpile of parts that AAM used as a buffer during the first weeks of the strike.

And the union should not have ignored the two AAM plants that were not under the master agreement. Although their contracts were not up, members there could have been brought into the fight as well.

TAKING STOCK

At the negotiating table early this year, American Axle executives looked for and ultimately received the host of concessions that other major unionized parts makers have enjoyed at the expense of workers.

The fact that many of those parts makers were able to use bankruptcy courts to force open contracts mid-term to win these goals—and that American Axle has itself been profitable—made little difference. The balance of power swung toward the company and away from a union led by officials afraid to use their influence.

The new contract pushes American Axle workers even further outside the protective skirt of the UAW’s master contracts with the Big 3. Though formally under a separate national contract after GM sold its axle and gear plants in 1994, the union kept many of the strong provisions in the GM contract intact at the company.

The recent agreement wipes out these contractual defenses. In a major give-away, the new agreement surrenders the right to strike at the end of the grievance procedure for health and safety issues in favor of arbitration. By ignoring the old, stronger body of GM arbitration case law, the strength of all new arbitrations themselves will be greatly weakened.

Instead of saving jobs through painful but supposedly necessary concessions, UAW officials may have only emboldened the company more. AAM further weakened the remaining leverage the UAW could have wielded with its national agreement by effectively decreasing the share of production overall under the terms of that agreement.

While two master agreement plants will close, two other plants under separate UAW contracts with lower wages and benefits will remain open. Non-union plants bought up by the company in recent years are also expected to stay up and working.

Even more ominously, this double-breasting is expected to go global. Less than a week after the strike settled, AAM executives announced that they expect 85 percent of their new production will now come from Brazil, China, India, Mexico, Poland, and Thailand. An estimated 65 percent to 70 percent of those new parts are expected to come back to U.S. plants to be assembled.

NO PARTIAL MEASURES

The UAW could have used some of the strike tactics it got partially right to fuller advantage.

For one, it could have put more pressure on GM, AAM’s main customer, in order to convince GM to twist Dauch’s arm to settle. The UAW called a May walkout at the Chevy Malibu plant in Kansas, which prodded GM to offer money for buyouts. But that strike was short and late in the game.

To its credit, the UAW investigated and tracked the movement of scab parts coming from Mexico. Unfortunately, it did very little with the information. Pickets could have been set up at delivery points, and workers could have refused to move the parts at UAW plants.

The UAW could have promoted an aggressive strategy to counter AAM’s threats to bring in scabs in the last weeks of the strike. A number of Detroit members cited fear of scabs as a reason they voted for the contract.

UAW International officials told workers at the Detroit contract information meeting that the laws were stacked against the union when it came to scab threats. But in fact, federal law makes it difficult to permanently replace workers in an unfair labor practices strike, like this one.

More important, unions have time-tested methods for keeping scabs off the property: exposing and mass picketing scab-provider firms, pressuring individual scabs, and physically preventing them from crossing the lines.

Over the long run, of course, the union must organize the growing majority of non-union parts workers. More defeats will follow if UAW leaders refuse to commit member organizers and money at the scale needed.

The AAM strike faced shorter odds than many. The power to put up a credible fight was there; the difficult part was building a vibrant rank-and-file movement that organized around how to use it.

Wendy Thompson is the retired president of UAW Local 235 at Detroit Axle.

Chris Kutalik is the outgoing editor of Labor Notes in Detroit. He is now working on a book of oral histories of younger activists in the U.S. labor movement and a Texas labor school. He can be reached at kutalik@gmail.com.

A shorter, less detailed version of this article appears in Labor Notes July 2008.

 

 

 

 

 

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