The Fate of the UAW: Study, Aim, Fire

I can understand the fear and trembling union bureaucrats must feel as the guillotine of Right to Work For Less sows and scythes its way across the working class consciousness. If workers aren’t required to pay for services they don’t respect or feel they need, it’s quite likely deadheads will roll and no one will miss the toll they charged for lip service.

If you want to predict the future, don’t speculate, study the past. In light of the knowledge gleaned, examine the present. The history of the future is planted, not buried, in the here and now.

The fate of the UAW hinges on contract negotiations. The UAW signs confidentiality agreements with their business partners before bargaining. This parody of confidence, with an emphasis on con, effectively surrounds the rank and file in a cordon of silence studded with omen and disdain.

At the UAW Bargaining Convention, elected delegates express their goals for upcoming contracts, but it’s a dog and pony show which would beguile the wiles of Christopher Guest at his best. No delegate at a bargaining convention ever expressed an interest in two-tier, temporary, contract, or flex workers. Elimination of Cost of Living Adjustments (COLA) was taboo. Raises, rather than profit sharing, was the standard placard workers stamped on their picket signs since union time began. Raises compound. Profit sharing is like the whim of a diner’s tip—arbitrary, condescending, and inherently degrading.

The companies likewise sign confidentiality agreements, but they don’t take the gag order seriously. Instead they take the liberty of advertising their positions in the press, aggrandizing potential investments, and advising that concessions save jobs. The old saw about job creators and concessions has worn the blade of its contention raw as an old dog bone but when you’re desperate for a new idea the ossified jaws of an old canard may seem worthy of another chaw. Unless, of course, the mob has paid attention to culinary history and healthy gastronomy.

During the UAW’s Bargaining Convention last March, GM and Ford expressed interest in a third-tier wage. Some analysts think this is merely a pencil pusher’s version of saber-rattling. Too many talking heads think history is twitter. They have the memory and sound bites of mocking birds. They can be counted on to repeat whatever they are told, repeatedly, until you pound your head on the stoop just to stop the bloody torment of repetition. Physical pain is a reprieve from mental torture. Try it. Cut your wrists. It works. For a moment you’ll forget you are working for less than the cost of living.

If you want to predict the future, ignore the chatter. Examine the UAW’s history of concession bargaining. Then, look for a similar pattern in the present tense.

In the 1990s, Ford outsourced jobs to Johnson Controls. In 1997 the UAW, with the complicity of Ford (who “was quick to point to its relationship with the union when it announced it would not take scab parts from Johnson Controls“), organized the outsourced jobs at lower wages than Ford paid for the same work. Then, UAW President Steve Yokich, “grinning like a autoworkersCheshire cat,” claimed an organizing victory.

Company union partners called this contract “win-win.” Workers called it, shenanigans.

GM and Daimler Chrysler helped UAW President Ron Gettelfinger claim a similar organizing victory at Johnson Controls in 2002. The outsourcing and organizing of jobs from Big Three automakers at lower wages became a pattern for the UAW. It helped the union avoid the embarrassment of negotiating two-tier wage agreements but gave their company partners a cost savings.

As the outsource and organize tactic ran its course, the UAW agreed to spin off Delphi from GM and Visteon from Ford—a new set-up for a new step-down.

The two-tier cavalcade turned into a turkey parade which culminated in 2007 when the Big Three won second tier wages for new hires and made a forward lateral pass of retiree health care to UAW officers via VEBA—a trust for health care benefits that retirees never trusted. For good reason. Every VEBA the UAW negotiated failed.

After that came bankruptcy, a business plan that company union partners banked on to cement wage regression, end cost of living adjustments, and begin the installment of profit sharing which substitutes company loyalty for solidarity.

The seeds were planted long ago, but the transition from the UAW as a social movement union into the UAW as a corporate union was finalized in 2009.

Fast forward five years: In September 2014, the UAW promoted the contract at Lear in Hammond, IN as the end of two-tier. A pinch of truth and a pound of bullshit.

One hundred and twenty workers from the Lear plant were outsourced and reorganized at wages below the new standard. The UAW-Lear contract was hailed as a solution for two-tier and an organizing victory. How is it that the new song and story always sounds remotely familiar? A sort of hip-hop loop that triggers but never shoots more than blanks and old cahoots.

This year the new UAW President Dennis Williams echoes the membership’s demand to end two-tier, but the pattern in UAW bargaining signals bait and switch, not equality. You can hear the chorus singing, “Look out, look out, look out!” as the car crash nears.

The play of words between two parties whose goal is the same—competition between workers and cooperation with bosses—should not be taken at face value.

Breweries insinuate beer drinking is a sport that attracts pretty girls to couch-potatoes. Beer makers and the NFL have the same goal: keep couch-potato eyes in the dark and fleece them pink and bald as new shorn sheep.

If we believe the sloganeering of International UAW officers, we may fall victim to the same bait and switch we did in the past. The pattern of UAW contracts is increasingly selective and divisive rather than collective. The implementation of multiple wage tiers, temporary, flex, and contract workers not only shatters the foundation of union culture, it discourages organizing.

Who wants to join a union that works for the company and divides rather than unites workers?

UAW bureaucrats are mainly interested in their own comfort. For example, VEBA, a medical benefit trust for UAW retirees, is a boon to nepotism. The VEBA was negotiated at a loss for retirees—fifty percent of the value earned over thirty years of labor and most of that in stock and promissory notes, a flagrant conflict of interest which boosted the companies’ bargaining leverage. The VEBA couldn’t possibly fulfill the promise, but it ensured an abundance of desk jobs for friends and family. On top of that it wasn’t legal.

A union cannot legally represent retirees because retirees don’t work, don’t pay dues, and don’t vote on contracts. In order to justify this illegal action the UAW set up two retired UAW members as stalking horses to file a lawsuit against GM. The lawsuit was not a legitimate lawsuit because there was no conflict. Both parties—GM and the UAW—had already agreed on a settlement. They simply needed the court to recognize the UAW as a legal representative of the retirees. Two naive retirees were pimped as stalking horses.

If figures lie and liars figure, what’s a Gettelfinger? The answer begs the question: who represents workers? Connivers, traitors, or conspirators? The choices are preconfigured.

So where do we go from here? What do we learn from history?

UAW members must take the lead if we want to overcome that giant sucking sound coming out of Solidarity House. Don’t confuse pledges, promises, and slogans with direct action and collective bargaining.

Workers are on the front line of the profit and loss struggle. Not because labor is a major cost factor, but because labor is a primary creator of value. We can make it and we can break it. The solution isn’t pie in the sky, we only need to recognize what we hold in our hands: the presence of our future.

At the GM plant in Wentzville, Missouri forty-one workers refused, with the backing of local union officers, to follow management’s orders to work outside their job description. The workers stood up for their contractual rights, but management fired them.

Back in the day there wouldn’t have been any discussion when forty-one workers were fired. Production would have slowed to a gut-shot crawl. One car less for each worker fired. The code, “41 for 41,” would have spread like a virus infecting every twist and turn, lift and tote, down the line. As word spread, other plants would have rallied the job action with rival slowdowns. Who’s the best at doing less?

We need to know where we came from, and how we arrived in the position we are now, if we want to determine our own direction and goals. My prescription isn’t mysticism, it’s more like deer hunting: study, aim, fire.

The word sabotage “was first used officially by French labor organizations in 1897”. The French word sabot means wooden shoe. The term sabotage originates from the French expression “Travailler a coups de sabots,” meaning “to work as one wearing wooden shoes,” that is, slow and clumsy. In the 1915 pamphlet, “Sabotage,” Elizabeth Gurley Flynn wrote, “Sabotage is not physical violence; sabotage is an internal industrial process.” [Rebel Voices: An IWW Anthology]

Work to Rule, “an internal industrial process,” is a slowdown based on compliance with management’s rules and withdrawal of workers’ knowledge and expertise. Since bosses are the ones who get paid for superior intelligence, let them figure out how to fix every problem. Work safe, and make quality, not quantity, the top priority.

In his forthcoming book about the rise and fall of Buick City based on his dissertation, “UAW Incorporated: the Triumph of Capital,” Tom Adams relates a story about solidarity and direct action:

“I started at the Buick foundry in Flint in 1976. I was a kid, just nineteen. I didn’t know anything. Flint foundry workers were the roughest group of folks I ever met, but they were also the most solidarity-driven people I would ever know. I learned a lot.

One steamy summer afternoon Lyle, the substitute foreman dispatched me and another apprentice on a “search and rescue mission” of a disabled fork truck at the north end of the foundry.  At the scene of the accident hydraulic fluid was all over the floor.  The steel uprights and forks were laying forty feet away from rest of the vehicle. The severed halves of the tilt-cylinders and torn hydraulic hoses bled fluid from the truck’s troubled corpse. It looked like it had hit a land mine. One of the nearby machine operators slipped over to deliver a message the millwrights left behind.  ‘If there are any questions, we’ll be at the White Eagle.’

The White Eagle was a popular watering hole on the fringe of the Buick complex. That’s where we found the millwrights and a couple of cold beers. When we returned to the truck shop the boss was waiting for us. Lyle was one of those supervisors who took every opportunity to assert his authority. He lectured us and then declared, ‘You’re on notice.’

A written reprimand could end the skilled trades career of an apprentice. Lyle was the stand-in for the regular foreman who was on vacation. Lyle had recently been promoted from the shop floor to foreman and was anxious to prove himself. Lyle was resented by the production workers as a suck ass who would do anything to get on supervision. Skilled trades especially loathed him. They felt Lyle didn’t know squat about skilled trades and being placed under his supervision was an insult. Those three words, ‘You’re on notice,’ set off a cascade of events that brought the pouring lines to a halt. When the pouring of hot steel stops, it means thousands of dollars down the drain. It’s like stopping an assembly line. School was open and the lessons were about to begin.

To the untrained eye everything appeared to be functioning normally in truck repair. Everyone in the repair bays was busy disassembling trucks, but no trucks were reassembled. The more urgent problem was in the battery shop. When a truck driver came in for a fresh battery, the ‘Battery man’ installed a barely-charged battery which soon died. Within an hour, there were more than a dozen trucks waiting in line for fresh batteries. Less fortunate fork trucks stalled on the plant floor and had to be pushed back manually. Within two hours, the iron pouring lines shut down. Foundry operations ground to a halt. That’s when the plant superintendent appeared in the truck shop accompanied by a dozen irate foremen.

White shirts were everywhere. I didn’t know what was happening. A heated debate ensued. After a few minutes of shouting, arm waving and finger pointing, a red-faced Lyle stalked over to me and the other apprentice. ‘You’re off notice,’ he shouted. He left the truck shop and wasn’t seen again. Within a half-hour the trucks were running and foundry operations returned to normal.”

Power respects power, not punks. As long as production is maintained at maximum levels, forty-one workers in Missouri will hang in the shadows of the gallows.

When the bosses fired forty-one workers they committed sabotage by their own definition, not ours. They committed a deliberately destructive act designed to cover up their own incompetence. When faulty ignitions and air bag malfunctions are covered up resulting in lost lives, when information is concealed or is intentionally misleading, management is guilty of sabotage under the terms of their own malicious definition. When multinational corporations claim bankruptcy in the United States and protect their foreign operations from liability, they commit a premeditated, lethal act of sabotage which is not “an internal industrial process” intended to leverage negotiations, but rather a deliberate exploitation of innocent civilians—shareholders, consumers, and both salary and hourly workers. Corporations routinely commit the most horrendous acts of malicious sabotage. Corporations don’t slow down, they kill for profit.

Labor Notes lauded the grievance settlement in Wentzville as a victory for solidarity but noted, “All 41 were brought back to work, kept their specific jobs, and were put on 18 months’ probation. No back pay was awarded up front, though the union says it will continue to seek it.”

It’s always good to see workers reinstated, but the settlement was hardly a victory. Without back pay each worker was essentially fined about two thousand dollars (lost pay) despite the fact that management, not workers, violated the contract. As part of the grievance resolution, break time was cut. Previously, workers got two twenty minute breaks and an unpaid thirty minute lunch. Now they get a sixteen minute break, a twenty-four minute break, and the unpaid lunch comes after work.

A “straight eight” used to mean workers got paid for a thirty minute lunch. Now they have to eat on the job. Instead of resolving the dispute with direct solidarity actions, the UAW negotiated for each individual worker of the “41” to return to work with a target on their back for the next eighteen months, and helped the company intensify labor regardless of basic human needs for relaxation and nourishment. The UAW’s apparent goal was to help the company gain profit at the expense of working conditions.

Management wants workers to comply with the grievance procedure because it works to the company’s benefit. It moves the dispute off the floor where production/profit happens and into the back room where workers have no influence. Union officials want workers to comply with the grievance procedure because it reinforces the power and prestige of union officers.

Workers’ power is not in the back room or in the grievance procedure. Workers’ power is labor which can ratchet the faucet of profit to a trickle when bargaining leverage is in order.

If you don’t know where you’ve come from, it is damned difficult to understand where you are, or where you are headed. Both the target and the means of hitting the target are obscure, if not invisible.

History is not academic, it’s no more complicated than knowing how to get home from school by yourself. You simply have to put your dumb phone down and pay attention.

In 1979 Stan Weir wrote: “Most auto workers today reject the international leadership of their union. . . . Fraser and his staff, like those of the UAW presidents before him, are experts at outmaneuvering and coercing the ranks into accepting contracts they don’t want, contracts in which ‘packages’ are substituted for improved working conditions. In short, the leadership has become the seller of bribes.” [Singlejack Solidarity, page 319]

When Owen Bieber was president of the UAW, Weir wrote: “At the UAW’s 1985 GM Council meeting in St. Louis, twenty-three locals networked on the spot and demanded a national strike vote on the basis of five demands . . . .The delegates went home believing that the strike vote would be called and that they won an important victory. But in the end, the delegates lost because they still believed that their leadership was democratic enough to carry out a democratic decision it opposed. The officials of UAW Solidarity House did just the opposite of the instruction: they placed the original Fremont GM local under trusteeship, seized all of its assets and acted as its official mortician.” [Singlejack Solidarity, page 331]

In 1990, former UAW International Executive Board member Jerry Tucker told the Multinational Monitor in an interview: “The New Directions Movement is an outgrowth of the failure of the International UAW to respond to needs of our union membership. It has grown dramatically as a result of what many people perceive as a lack of internal democracy and accountability to the membership and a straying away from the principle of solidarity as a mechanism for union behavior.”

The International UAW has no intention of liberating and empowering the rank and file. The International UAW wants workers to knuckle under and accept the yoke of competition between workers and cooperation with bosses—the antithesis of solidarity unionism.

According to the Center for Automotive Research, “Since 2009 in the U.S., management compensation has grown about 50 percent faster than union workers’ income. In the U.S. auto industry, real wages have declined 24 percent since 2003.” There’s plenty of pie. The solution lies in the hands of those who wield the pie slicer.

I am none too swift on social media, but I got eyes, man, and I know the back story like the long road home.

If workers wait for the back room deal, every hand they’re dealt will come from the bottom of the deck. Workers’ power is not defined by law or contract. Workers’ power is defined by struggle. We can only win what we are willing to fight for.

Gregg Shotwell is a retired autoworker and author of the blog Live Bait and Ammo as well as the book Autoworkers Under the Gun: A Shop-Floor View of the End of the American Dream.