At General Motors, “What Means This Strike?”

Kim Moody

IN HIS FAMOUS address to the striking New Bedford textile workers in 1898, Socialist Labor Party leader Daniel De Leon posed the question, “What Means This Strike?”  De Leon told the workers their strike would be for naught if they didn’t see it connected to the broader struggle of their class.

He praised them for their courage and affirmed the socialist belief in the strike weapon, but warned that this strike, the second in recent time, would simply become one of a series of lost struggles if it were not tied to the building of a broader labor and socialist movement.

The Power of the Strike

The recently settled strikes at two Flint, Michigan General Motors plants were the sixteenth and seventeenth local strikes against the giant auto maker since 1994.  The strike by UAW Local 659 at the Flint Metal Center was ignited over Memorial Day weekend when management, using outside contractors, removed dies used to form parts (hoods and bumpers) for GM light trucks, which would have effectively meant the end of work that the union says GM had promised the local.

UAW officials, including Region 1-C Director Rueben Burkes, knew in advance of this action, but took no action to prevent it or to prevent UAW members in Mansfield, Ohio, where the dies were moved, from working with them.

The second local strike began June 11, when workers at a GM Delphi parts plant in Flint (Local 651) walked off the job.

Altogether there have been 22 strikes against GM since 1990.  Many of these strikes have demonstrated the power of the union and the vulnerability of today’s just-in-time production systems.  Most have resulted in some additional hiring at a time when GM was trying to downsize.

Several, including this year’s Flint strikes, showed that the union could impose modifications on the corporation’s aggressive restructuring plans.  In a few cases, such as GM’s Warren, Michigan Powertrain plant last year and now at the Flint Metal Center, GM has been forced to backtrack on plans to disinvest or remove major facilities.

While GM swore it would never let the union dictate investment decisions, it was precisely on this matter that the union forced GM to agree to live up to a past promise to invest $180 million in the Metal Center.

In addition, the strike settlement appears to have put a temporary crimp in GM’s plan to spin-off Delphi plants in Flint and Dayton, Ohio. This temporary relief was enough to get overwhelming ratification: 90% in the Metal Center and 76% in the Delphi parts plant, where the relief was less substantial.  (Shortly after the settlement, GM revealed plans to sell Delphi.)

The union inflicted enormous damage on the company, which lost almost $3 billion in profits and $12 billion in sales during the fifty-four-day conflict.  Strikes in just two plants had closed twenty-seven of GM’s twenty-nine assembly plants and over 100 parts plants in the United States, Mexico and Canada.

Clearly, one lesson of this year’s Flint strikes is that workers’ power in the heart of international lean production has been magnified and the union’s ability to broaden the scope of bargaining enhanced.

Major Issues Unresolved

Yet the words of Daniel De Leon hang over this string of local strikes.

Despite what these strikes showed about the power of the workers and their union, the major issues in all the strikes remain unresolved.  Downsizing, outsourcing, spinoffs, speedup and workloads remain issues across General Motors North American operations.

GM’s attempt to “catch up” with its competition is a permanent feature of capitalism.  It isn’t something that began in the 1990s.  It has, however, accelerated under pressure from Wall Street and all those who own or peddle its stock.  Whatever the speed of this process, it can’t be addressed one or two local unions at a time.

The United Auto Workers’ major contracts allow them to strike over local issues such as health and safety, production standards (speedup), and the subcontracting of skilled work. But this setup-crafted in the 1940s and 1950s and updated in past decades-needs a big rehaul for the 1990s and 21st century.

There’s nothing wrong about using local strikes to get at a vulnerable corporation.  Indeed, the Teamsters used local strikes at Overnite even as the GM strikes in Flint were going on. But the Teamsters had a national objective-to force Overnite to sign to the National Master Freight Agreement.

It’s not that the right of local unions to strike over local issues should be jettisoned.  Rather, outsourcing and downsizing need to be brought under the umbrella of national negotiations to put greater limits on the company and to create a more favorable climate in which to pursue local resistance.

The UAW’s leaders, however, refused to generalize the struggle or even, with GM almost completely shut down, to point toward a more national approach to these issues in the upcoming contract negotiations in 1999.

The most the union could come up with is yet one more high level joint union-management committee to “head off further confrontations,” as the New York Times put it, and a no-strike agreement at the two brake plants in Dayton, Ohio that had brought the company down in 1996.

But several other plants were still lined up for possible strikes, including yesterday’s models of cooperation NUMMI and Saturn and two other assembly plants in Bowling Green, Ohio and Janesville, Wisconsin.

Over and Over and Over

When the settlement was reached in Flint, many of the strikers predicted a major clash with GM in 1999 national negotiations.  They knew that regardless of the gains or losses in the current local settlements, the basic issues that affected all GM workers-ongoing speedup, outsourcing, downsizing in violation of the 1996 agreement to maintain 95% of the workforce-would remain unresolved.

Looking at the fate of the seventeen strikes at General Motors plants in the last four years, we have to wonder why the union would want to repeat the same struggle over and over without resolving the basic issues that continue to fester across the company.

Yet the UAW continues to insist that the issues in all the plants lined up to strike are simply “local.” To be sure, compliance with the contract limits mid-term strikes to plant issues.  But there is more involved here.

Legally, the union can only strike and bargain over these issues.  But it still possesses the First Amendment right to publicly discuss the national nature of these issues.

Many people have noted the enormous difference in how the Teamsters handled the 1997 UPS strike and the way the UAW leaders addressed the public this year. Whereas the Teamsters aggressively addressed the working-class public, making their strike a fight for all working families, the UAW keeps a low profile insisting these were local strikes over local issues.

The union still has the option of declaring that these issues will come under the umbrella of national negotiations when it bargains new national contracts with the Big Three next year. As yet the UAW has done nothing like this.

Business Union Barriers

Activists in the UAW New Directions Movement called for such an approach.  They and a few more independently minded local leaders saw an opportunity to rally a broad movement against GM, to make these issues national ones, and to build greater solidarity within the UAW and with labor as a whole.  It was not to be.

New Directions activists point to these facts: The GM hourly workforce in Flint has plummeted form 78,000 in the late 1970s to 33,000 on the eve of these strikes.  The “effective unemployment rate” among Black males in this 50% African-American city is about 27%.  GM’s total plan for downsizing Flint involves 11,000 more job cuts-a plan one UAW Local 599 official in Flint called “industrial racism.” (Labor Notes, August 1998, 14)

Nationally, the UAW has lost half its members in the last twenty years, despite the fact that there are almost as many auto workers in the U.S. today as there were twenty years ago. While the UAW likes to emphasize the production that has moved to Mexico and elsewhere abroad, the bulk of lost union members is explained by two other factors.

The first is speedup in the assembly division.  In 1978, 328,000 workers stamped and assembled about nine million cars and trucks in the United States.  Today about 258,000 workers stamp and assemble 12 million.

The second cause of dropping union membership in auto is the growth of nonunion U.S. parts plants and firms.  The number of workers in this sector has grown from 352,000 in 1978 to 437,000 this year, but union membership has gone from 75% of this workforce to around 10% by some estimates.  Yet the UAW leadership continues to hold to the fiction that its declining membership faces only local issues.

We don’t have to look far for the reasons for this insular outlook.  Decades of business union ideology and practice would probably explain enough.  For about twenty-five years following the Second World War local strikes were just local strikes, national strikes tended to be brief ceremonies (with important exceptions, to be sure), and “scabs” were not spoken of in polite society.

Furthermore, the ranks of labor were fragmented by a “private welfare” system in which company-based benefits tied the union and its members to the company and fostered an insular consciousness.

Add to this a decade and a half of “jointness” and labor-management cooperation in the name of “competitiveness,” with its debilitating impact on union consciousness at all levels, and the UAW leaders’ behavior (and a good deal of membership support for it) might well said to be “overdetermined.”

The problem is that the post-1945 deal on which all of this ideology and practice rested has been broken for a long, long time.

Indeed, by the early 1970s there were multiple local strikes (e.g.  Norwood and Lordstown) over speedup and other working conditions issues, as well as a wave of wildcat strikes over heat and repression in Detroit plants, which were dissipated or squashed by the UAW’s bureaucratic machinery.

Add to this the problem of the UAW’s elaborate, multimillion dollar capital-labor partnerships.  These have tended to disarm the union, while giving the companies time to outflank them.

Caterpillar, another exemplary UAW “partner,” did more than break the deal. CAT used the period of “cooperation” in the late 1980s to invest in nonunion facilities all over the country and world, then resorted to scabs to break the union at home.

“Partnership” or Pretense?

In spite of its multimillion dollar “jointness” program, GM turned nastier under pressure from Wall Street and its shareholders to downsize, outsource and otherwise cheapen its operations.

GM abandoned the practice if not the pretense of “partnership” even at the model Saturn plant.  There a series of smaller rank-and-file rebellions-first against union leaders, then to get out of the “risk-and-reward” contract, and finally an overwhelming strike vote in July 1998-marked the collapse of partnership.

At GM’s NUMMI joint venture with Toyota, management went even farther and threatened to run its truck line if the union went on strike when its contract expired on July 31.

By the end of July, UAW locals at six GM plants were waiting in line to strike the giant corporation.  And still the line was that they’re all just local.

GM’s propaganda, on the other hand, makes a strong case. How can anyone in today’s dog-eat-dog competitive world argue for … well, decent working conditions or secure jobs?

It all sounds so real-world, so natural.  Just like a tidal wave. How, indeed-if, like so many business unionists, your world view buys so much of capital’s priorities?  If, for example, you can contort reality enough to believe that GM’s competitiveness is the basis of job security rather than job elimination?

But, in fact, many people fall back on that kind of thinking for lack of an alternative.  The UAW was not providing such an alternative. In fact, the UAW’s rallying cry was that GM was putting “America Last” as it invested abroad-the last refuge of scoundrels in defense of business-union insularity.

Industry-Wide Problems

Problems of speedup, workloads, outsourcing and job loss are not unique to GM. Chrysler has seen two strikes, one a wildcat, in the last year. But there is more discontent beneath the surface.

The Wall Street Journal (July 26, 1998) quoted UAW local officials at Ford and Chrysler plants as saying the UAW national leadership has been too soft on management at those companies.  The same problems vexing GM workers are rampant in Ford and Chrysler plants as well.

It could not be otherwise in today’s international auto industry, where competition first breeds over-capacity as firms struggle to expand market share; where lean production has become the job-reducing-work-intensifying norm; and where competitiveness finally forces everyone to reduce excess capacity-leaving someone behind.

The Working Class Sees Itself

While union leaders with vaguely social democratic views imagine themselves far ahead of their ranks in social vision, strategic thinking and political savvy, they have in fact been bypassed by a growing number of their members in at least one way.

More and more working people understand the almost universal nature of the issues that led to highly visible strikes such as last year’s UPS strike and those at GM this year. Support for these strikes has been overwhelming.

The polls show the public supporting the GM strikers by huge margins: 67% in a Flint-area survey, 74% in an ABC national Internet poll, and what NPR described as “overwhelmingly” in a Gallup poll.

Capital’s own thrust over the past twenty years to restructure, reshape and transform how it produces goods and services in the forge of ruthless competition has made one-time workplace issues into social issues.  Herein lies not only better strike strategy, but the possibility of mobilizing across labor and beyond-the hope of organizing the unorganized.

At the same time, capital’s unprecedented reorganization via mergers, acquisitions and spinoffs have made it an even more visible target for working-class resentment.  Add to this, particularly in the United States, the equally visible explosion of upper-class incomes through skyrocketing executive salaries and bonuses and the astronomical growth of stock values and dividend income, and you have the makings of resentment-and class consciousness.

To be sure, this new consciousness must fight its way through decades of business union ideology, racism, social conservatism and the dead weight of so much “common sense.”

Today’s labor leaders are caught in their own contradictory ideology: on one hand, a business union outlook carrying the weight of a lost past and dead “partnerships;” on the other, a vague populism in search of relief from this “labor crunch recovery.”

Still, the dynamics of the struggle at GM are revealing about the possibilities and limits of the moment.  After nearly two decades of paralysis and near passivity, the rank and file in auto has begun to push for resistance at the local level, which for now is the only place they have the direct power to do so.

Their renewed militancy has pushed the UAW leaders to open the gates of strike action and even to come up with a tactical approach to influencing the company-serial strikes that wound or cripple production.

Yet the ranks do not yet have the power to push the leadership to the next step: a genuinely national strategy for taking on the universal issues.  The narrowness of the leaders’ strategy in turn holds back a broader working-class mobilization, even if a largely symbolic one, in support of the strikers.

It is a situation begging for a breakthrough where the forces have not yet assembled to force it. De Leon was right, it takes more than one or two strikes to accomplish much if they are not tied to a broader working-class movement.

While his linear solution to this problem (socialist party plus socialist labor federation leading to the general strike) is not even an option now, the notion of building on these struggles to create a class movement once again presents itself as a possibility-even if a difficult and still distant one.

The task now is to build within the ranks the power and organization to make the breakthrough-to take the local struggle to the national level and to reach out beyond the unions to a class that is beginning to see itself as a class.

Kim Moody is the author of Workers in a Lean World (Verso, 1997) and An Injury to All.  He is director of Labor Notes.

ATC 76, September-October 1998