In early November, Ford workers voted down by a large margin a concessions package that would have accelerated two tier hiring and given away the right to strike for 6 years.
Here are two views on the meaning of the Ford workers vote and on the role of the UAW in the offensive against autoworkers and whether it should be by-passed altogether or it can be reformed.
By November 1, United Auto Workers (UAW) members at Ford had overwhelmingly rejected contract modifications, in voting that concluded—not coincidentally—the day before Ford announced new profits. This was the second set of modifications to the UAW-Ford contract proposed this year. The first were voted up in March, but the members saw these as a “giveback too far.”
The concessions just voted down were to last until 2015, i.e. through the new contract still to be negotiated for 2011. They included severe limitations on the right to strike, a six-year freeze on new-hire pay that had already been cut in half, and the reduction of skilled trades classifications. The argument of the company and the union leadership was that these measures were needed to “match” the labor cost savings at the bankrupt Chrysler and General Motors corporations.
At half pay, young auto workers will not be able to buy the cars they build. With the average nonunion industrial pay in the United States substantially higher than the $14.50 that Ford new-hires currently get, what does Ford—let alone the UAW—think it’s doing? Anyone who has been subject to the discipline needed in a modern auto assembly plant knows that—short of fascism—you can’t effectively run one here for this kind of pay. The top goal of this savage pay cut is not so much immediate savings as the extermination of the UAW as a respected force on the shop floor as well as politically. Ford will raise pay later, but hopes to dictate its own terms.
Solidarity House argued for the attempt to put Ford workers in line with those at bankrupt GM and Chrysler by appealing to the downward “pattern” that now includes non-union transplant companies. As many workers said during the campaign, “Bring them up to us, not us down to them.”
The most prominent sentiment on the shop floor and around local halls was that we must vote “no” in order to hold on to the right to strike over wage raises in next year’s contract negotiations. Ford and the UAW bureaucracy countered that the union has not struck Ford since 1976. Members replied, “If it’s not that important, then why do they want to take it away from us?” There was no good answer to that.
Anger was very palpable during voting at union halls around the country. At UAW 600, local staff backed off as a line of Truck Plant voters hissed at them that they would take only Vote No leaflets.
The coming result of the vote was clear from the early count, ending in a 70% No vote among production workers and 75% No among skilled trades, for an overall 72% No vote, according to a letter to the membership from Vice President for UAW-Ford, Bob King. (UAW Solidarity House has released only percentages, not a national count. Only an internal union appeal extracted a count in 2005.)
During the Vote No campaign, the national union leadership lost political control of the most important Ford plant in the US if not the world, the Dearborn Truck Plant, one of the plants in UAW Local 600.
Full-time Truck Plant bargaining committeeperson Gary Walkowicz, who has long been a national leader against concessions at Ford, plant president Nick Kottalis, and five other Dearborn Truck Plant union officers came out with a signed statement against these concessions during the campaign. The Truck Plant makes the F-150 pickup truck and a huge proportion of Ford profits. Members there voted No by 93%. Skilled trades worker Judy Wraight was one of the authors of the Local 600-wide “vote no” leaflet quoted below. Across all Local 600 Ford plants, the vote was No 3087, Yes 823.
The new faultline in the Ford empire should be an inspiration to workers everywhere. A Ford executive responding to the vote in Kansas City — earlier and virtually equal to that in the Truck Plant — said he was “shocked.” And perhaps Ford workers have somewhat alarmed the U.S. ruling class as a whole.
The national contract rejection sprang from factors ranging from a sense that Ford had come back for concessions a time too many, to rebellion by lower-level union officers in touch with the rank and file, to a presence of radicals, including socialists, in some key plants. It is the first time a national auto contract was ever voted down by a majority of the membership!
In the wake of the rejection vote, UAW president Ron Gettelfinger said there would be no more negotiations until 2011. But two days after the vote results were announced, Reuters reported: “Ford Motor Co. will continue meeting informally with United Auto Workers leaders to discuss labor issues following the rejection of concessions by U.S. rank-and-file workers, a top executive said…”
Such talks are always said to be underway, but Ford was making a point by making this statement at this time: We’re back at concessions bargaining the day after.
An excerpt from a leaflet signed by 18 opponents of the concessions at UAW Local 600 UAW stated the following:
“The strike threat defends our money, benefits, rights—and UAW political clout…Power in Washington starts with our power right here (for true national health insurance, converting closed plants to greener jobs and alternative transportation for auto and other workers, and defending the gains of civil rights movements, etc.).
“International solidarity: CAW-Ford members like Lindsay Hinshelwood at Oakville (Ontario) assembly also organize against concessions. We need an independent Council of union reps and workers across borders, not Ford lobbying the International Metalworkers Federation Ford Network. Ford wants to lead the race to the bottom internationally.“
It remains to be seen whether unity against company attacks and rejection of timid union leadership can be converted into a sustained rank-and-file organization for action including strike mobilization, union democracy, and international solidarity. This could feed social movement unionism, helping to unite the working class and reverse the decades-long decline of the union movement in the United States.
For activists at Ford, the way forward is upward but not yet entirely clear in its details. The vote was notably dependent on a “No” or neutral position taken by shop-floor officers who had supported all the concessions up to now. Some of these officers concluded during the campaign that they could not be re-elected if they supported the latest concessions at a company returning to profitability.
What will those who followed the rank and file yesterday do tomorrow? Such questions will be prominent until union officers have to side more consistently with a rebellious rank and file. The 2010 UAW Convention delegate and other local elections, as well as the 2011 contract, are good opportunities. The UAW Convention next year is in Detroit.
Despite efforts at international solidarity against union concessions at Ford, the Canadian version of these concessions has been adopted by vote of the Canadian Auto Workers union by 83%. Today international union solidarity is required for any comprehensive fight for jobs, pay and working conditions.
(There is more coverage of this struggle at Labor Notes and Soldiers of Solidarity.)
—Ron Lare is a retired member of UAW Local 600 and former executive board member.
The Ford vote and the UAW’s defenders
By Jerry White
Last week’s defeat of Ford concessions contract—by a margin of 22,136 to 7,816—was a massive repudiation of the United Auto Workers by the rank-and-file, and a sign of the growing hostility and opposition of workers to this pro-company organization.
The “No” vote was a historic event—the first rejection of a national auto contract recommended by the UAW since 1982 and at Ford since 1976. It is, however, only an initial step.
Within hours of announcing the defeat, top UAW executives pledged to work with Ford on a daily basis to “insure that they maintain the highest levels of quality and productivity” and “remain competitive.” This can only mean the UAW intends to force through the concessions on a plant-by-plant basis using the threat of factory closings and mass layoffs.
Ford workers must draw the implications of their own actions. A struggle in defense of jobs and living standards will not be carried out by the UAW—which is no less an enemy of workers than are the corporations and the Obama administration—but against it, through the creation of new organizations of working class struggle.
In the aftermath of the “No” vote, various middle class organizations, which like to posture as “left” and even socialist, have insisted that any resistance of workers must be channeled through the UAW. Contrary to all evidence, these groups claim that the UAW can be reformed and its leadership forced to respond to the needs of the organization’s members.
A “resounding NO vote would be the first step to re-building the UAW as a union that fights for its members and all working people,” claimed one leaflet signed by two supporters of Solidarity, a self-described “socialist, feminist and anti-racist organization.” The two are also former executive board members of UAW Local 600 at the Ford Rouge plant in Dearborn, Michigan.
“Rank and file UAW activists should use the momentum and sense of victory that this has given us to begin building the kind of movement that can turn the UAW into a fighting trade union,” declares another statement, written by a supporter of Socialist Alternative and a UAW official at the St. Paul, Minnesota Ford plant. The program for “rebuilding the UAW,” should include the fight for a “publicly funded green jobs program” and the nationalization of the auto industry, they wrote.
“Perhaps this is the beginning of a new workers revolution, one that will gain the respect of those that negotiate on their behalf and redefine the direction of the UAW,” wrote a another local official at the Ford-Mazda plant in Flat Rock, Michigan, in a column featured on the Labor Notes web site.
The natural question that arises upon reading these statements is: What “UAW” are these people talking about?
What evidence can they present that shows the UAW is anything other than a right-wing appendage of the corporations and the state?
In 1937, the exiled socialist leader Leon Trotsky argued that the American Federation of Labor, despite its treacherous and pro-capitalist leadership, could still be defined as a “workers organization” because “within certain limits it leads a struggle of the workers for an increase—or at least against a diminution—of their share of the national income.” Should the AFL leaders, Trotsky wrote, “defend the income of the bourgeoisie from attacks on the part of the workers; should they conduct a struggle against strikes, against the raising of wages, against help to the unemployed; then we would have an organization of scabs, and not a trade union.”
This is exactly what the UAW has done over the last three decades. On the basis of the program of “labor-management partnership” and “Buy American” nationalism, it has functioned as a labor police force for the employers, isolating and betraying every struggle against plant closings, mass layoffs and concessions.
As a result of the suppression of working class resistance by the UAW and the AFL-CIO, the richest one percent of the population saw its share of national income more than double—from 9 to 20 percent—since 1979.
With the multi-billion VEBA retiree health care trust fund, it has been transformed into a business, complete with Wall Street advisers and a substantial ownership stake at all three Detroit automakers.
Its top administrators—far from being responsive to pressure from below—have a direct financial incentive to extract ever greater levels of profit from UAW members in order to boost the value of their shareholdings. These executives have seen their salaries and perks increase, even as the membership of the organizations and the wages of auto workers have sharply declined.
The UAW is widely hated and despised by the workers. Yet the supposed “lefts” and “progressives” instinctively defend the UAW and declare illegitimate any action by workers independent of the union apparatus. This says more about the class character of these organizations than any of their left-sounding phrases.
In the 1960s and 1970s, when the unions were still looked upon by workers, despite their hostility to the union bureaucracy, as organizations that they could use to defend their interests, when major class battles were waged via these organizations, the middle class groups were utterly indifferent and even openly hostile to the trade unions.
At the time they generally labeled the “white working class” as racist and identified the majority of union workers with the reactionary politics of leaders like AFL-CIO President George Meany. Meanwhile, they attacked the Workers League, the forerunner of the Socialist Equality Party, for intervening in union struggles and seeking to build a socialist leadership and mobilize the rank-and-file against the bureaucracy and its alliance with the Democratic Party.
Only during and after the decisive decade of the 1980s—when the UAW and AFL-CIO turned to corporatism, helped impose concessions and mass layoffs and betrayed one strike after another—did they orient their activities to the unions, become their most enthusiastic boosters and increasingly integrate themselves into the union hierarchy. That is to say, when the social character of the unions became more openly anti-working class, and any democratic impulse from the workers was extinguished, at precisely that point these groups became the champions of the unions.
Far from “reforming” the unions, the influx of the “dissidents” and “lefts” into various positions in the labor apparatus has not had the slightest impact. The right-wing politics of the AFL-CIO—the promotion of nationalism and chauvinism, defense of US imperialism and its wars, and support for the Democratic Party—has not lessened.
Time and time again the ex-radicals sought to boost illusions in one faction of the UAW or another in order to provide supposed proof of the possibility of reforming the organization. One of their past favorites was UAW Vice President Bob King himself, the architect of the Ford concessions who was booed off the stage by rank-and-file workers during the vote.
Their promotion of the UAW today is part of a general lurch to the right by middle class groups, who have lined up behind the Obama administration and the interests of US imperialism. The subordination of the working class to the so-called “unions” is a very critical issue for America’s ruling elite, under conditions of an historic crisis of the capitalist system and an emerging revival of working class militancy and political radicalization.
The “No” vote by the Ford workers is a harbinger of the return of great class battles. The way forward for auto workers and every section of the working class is a decisive break with these reactionary organizations and the building of new organs of industrial and political struggle based on the political independence of the working class, internationalism and socialism.
This is what the middle class groups fear and oppose.