On the UAW: Death of a Union?

Against the Current, No. 55, March/April 1995

Peter Downs

TWO READERS HAVE commented to me on errors they thought they found in my article “UAW: Death of a Union?” (ATC 51).

One, a Detroit labor lawyer, says it is not true to say that the UAW did not support Ypsilanti’s suit against General Motors to stop that company from closing its Willow Run assembly plant. The UAW International Union, he points out, joined its name to the suit.

The lawyer acknowledges that national UAW officials and staff worked to stop local unions from building any membership movement against the shutdown. He adds that the union even failed to offer any arguments to bolster the city’s position when offered the opportunity to do so by the judge who hear the case.

In American English, we have a long tradition of distinguishing saying from doing, as in the old cliche about “do what I say, not what I do.” I submit that the International’s pro forma support of the Willow Run suit is not the same as actual support for the city’s position, and evidence of this comes from the UAW headquarters’ refusal to mobilize the membership in a campaign against plant closings and its interference with local activists who tried to build a movement against the plant closing.

The second, a union staffer, complained that I had ignored all the International union had done for the Caterpillar workers: the mass rally to kick off the in-plant campaign; the mass rally in the Spring; the work of the health and safety department to help workers and local union officials get OSHA inspections of their plants and to prepare them for those visits; and the doubling of strike benefits to $300 a week.

The doubling of strike benefits is significant, and occurred after publication of my article. The health and safety department began its work with CAT locals while the article was being edited for publication.

I think these actually confirm the thesis of my article.

The CAT battle is of fundamental importance to the union “Texas Rangers” I discussed in my article. They maintain their power by virtue of a precarious balancing act between the interests of capitalists and the interests of workers they are supposed to represent.

Just as important as their ability to deal with capitalists is their ability to successfully stage strikes against a capitalist who won’t deal: If the union appears too ineffectual capitalists need take no notice of its officials at all.

A loss at CAT threatens one of the central props of the rangers’ position. Even so, the rangers have been unable to burst the bounds of their own ideology. The best that the most committed of them could do is to coach local activists on how to seek help elsewhere, with government bureaucrats.

I wholeheartedly support the increase in strike benefits. It is important to keep workers together financially during such struggles — but that is not enough. A winning strategy requires more. I also agree that a mass rally once a year can be very spiritually uplifting; but what is needed, if the union is to live up to its promise, is to help workers relearn how to organize and fight their battles themselves on a daily basis.

ATC55, March-April 1995