UAW: Undermining Solidarity

Against the Current, No. 106, September/October 2003

Dianne Feeley

THE FOUR-YEAR contracts covering more than 307,000 skilled and production workers represented by the United Auto Workers (UAW) expire this September 14. These cover workers at General Motors, Ford, and DaimlerChrysler as well as Delphi and Visteon–two top suppliers spun off by the GM and Ford in 1999 and 2000.

The companies have announced their intention to close about a dozen plants. Ford plans to trim five percent of its work force each year over the next four years, but maintains it can do so through attrition–as workers, after thirty years of service, become eligible for retirement. While the current contract bans plant closings, GM eliminated 17,000 jobs with little protest from the UAW.

In addition, Japanese- and German-owned transplants, mostly built in the South, have expanded production and taken greater market share from the Big Three. The Economist remarked, “Toyota is on the way to replacing Chrysler as one of America’s big three carmakers.” (6/20/03) Despite a number of attempts to organize them, the UAW has not succeeded.

The UAW’s New Organizing Strategy

In June 2002 the UAW staged a two-day strike at Johnson Controls Inc., a supplier of seats and other parts, forcing some DaimlerChrysler and GM plants to halt production. As a result, it won a neutrality clause and card check from Johnson Controls. This means that where the union is able to sign up more than half the work force, the company will recognize it as the bargaining agent. Since then the UAW has organized workers in nine Johnson Controls plants. Dana has also signed a similar agreement.

However, in pursuing this goal the UAW scrapped its strategy of insisting on a universal wage throughout the industry. Bob King, UAW Vice President in charge of organizing, has stated that given the Big Three decline in market share (down fourteen percent in the last decade), such a strategy is no longer viable: Instead, the union is pursuing a target wage in the parts industry about $10 an hour less than Big Three wages.

Another twist in these UAW-to-company agreements is the case of Metaldyne’s purchase of a DaimlerChrysler machining facility in New Castle, Indiana. Over the workers’ objections, the UAW agreed to a new wage of $16.21. (Labor Notes, July 2003).

On two occasions the UAW International recently pressured local officers to support a three-tier wage and benefit package. The proposal usually involves a new product line, where the starting wage for workers hired for that product would be something like $11.50 an hour. It might take a decade or more for these workers to reach the top wage.

Given that UAW President Ron Gettelfinger has made only one clear demand upon the Big Three–no cuts in health care–there probably won’t be such cuts. The monetary cuts that will finance the continuation of health care benefits will be hidden in other areas, and probably there will be a signing bonus so that members will feel they have won something. The job security agreement in the current contract wasn’t enforced, clearly it will have even less teeth next time around.

The UAW has built no campaign to win a decent contract. Individual plants can be picked off–whether closed, down<->sized or three-tiered. But unless there is a campaign to defend the most vulnerable, the slide to worsening working conditions, more stressful jobs and less pay skimping on benefits will continue. The burden will fall particularly hard on the younger work force.

ATC 106, September-October 2003