Soldiers of Solidarity

Mike Parker

Autoworkers Under the Gun
By Gregg Shotwell
Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2011, 237 pages, $17, paperback.

FROM 1998 TO 2009, Gregg Shotwell put out a series of leaflets entitled “Live Bait and Ammo” for workmates in response to immediate threats. Gregg’s writings grew in popularity and spread to other plants as workers sought to answer the flood of company, media, and politicians’ propaganda that blamed autoworkers for the seeming implosion of the industry. In the vacuum left by the union, Gregg provided a union viewpoint.

The U.S. auto industry was in a major “restructuring,” and the United Auto Workers (UAW), which workers should have counted on to organize their defenses, instead assisted management as a junior partner. Workers gave up years of hard fought economic gains and shop-floor rights.

The book, a collection of these short essays on unionism, has only a few footnotes explaining the context, the history and the jargon, so it may be harder for someone not in the industry to fully understand some topics. But Gregg’s wit and style should make the effort worthwhile, and there is much in here that’s useful for unionists facing today’s many similar defensive situations.

Although I worked more than 30 years in the auto industry, I only spent one summer as a production worker in an auto parts plant — enough to know that I probably could not handle it. For the remaining years I was fortunate enough to have a skilled trades job, with a quite different relationship to the machinery of production than that experienced by a production worker.

Still, for much of my work life Gregg speaks for me brilliantly.

We shared the same bosses who cared only for covering their own ass or proving their managerial skills by “catching” you at some violation of company policy. The notions of coaching or helping you were often the mantra for magazine articles on the “turnaround in auto,” but had nothing to do with the real plant floor.

Gregg speaks for my frustration with turning out junk instead of quality. “Get that machine running — we will fix it night shift!” Sure, but it still produced junk the next day.

We also faced pretty much the same economic contract conditions that the International always sold as victories. These included several “diversions” of our Cost of Living Adjustments — a cut in real wages — to pay for our medical. Then more concessions and layoffs that somehow supposedly provided us with job security.

Then came shifting the responsibility for retiree-medical benefits to an underfunded “independent” joint board of a Voluntary Employee Benefit Association. Then more concessions and the Two-Tier terminal cancer. Gregg skillfully unmasks the camouflage while he skewers the bull-shitters.

The section on “The Perfect Capitalist Disaster” deserves careful reading. Gregg connects the dots between what workers were experiencing in reorganization and job insecurity with what was happing in the industry and economy as a whole. Gregg offers a fantasy speech to Congress that would do all autoworkers proud — what we should have gotten instead of the pro-industry begging of our union leaders. (187)

Calling Out the UAW International

Gregg Shotwell also speaks for me in lampooning the United Auto Workers International Union. Community allies who had not worked in the plant, or even retirees, might characterize Gregg’s descriptions as exaggerated. After all, these union leaders had been trained by those who’d come up in the great tradition of the sitdown strikes, and who led the way in social unionism.

In such tough times, was it really necessary to refer to the leadership as the Con Caucus or Concessions Caucus as Gregg does? Did we really have to attack a UAW leadership that was just trying to do the best they could in hard times?

“Another concession we would gladly make is in the area of UAW appointees who get paid to keep the rabble unaroused. We could save a lot of money by kicking these slackers off the gravy train…. Put them back on the line and reduce overtime…

“Instead of the company paying union officials to hide in their cubby holes let’s put them back to work until they are called out and actively investigating grievances. There are plenty of concessions UAW members are willing to make [UAW International officials: Ron Gettlefinger’s mustache, Bob King’s phony apprenticeship, Cal Rapson’s nepotism] We will gladly give up the Center for Human Resources and the hundreds of millions in payola connected to joint funds.” (186-187)

Here too, Gregg spoke for most auto workers. Most had already become too cynical to even pay any attention to the union. Most had had it with union leaders whose main response to company atrocities was “You’re lucky to have a job.” (175)

If anything, Gregg was too gentle with these so-called leaders. The cancer of the employee-involvement/ “quality”/cooperation/work-reorganizations programs that began in the ’70s metastasized quickly. Most of the fulltime union officials wandering around the plant were jointness program clipboarders — loyal incompetent appointees of the International who worked against those few good local officers daring to speak against the company and International. And all too many of the elected plant officers did little more than refurnish their offices with a larger TV, milk the overtime arrangements, or mark time while they waited in line for a loyalty appointment.

There were a lot of good people who got involved and started to work their way up in the union. The problem was twofold: The union had adopted the strategy of cooperation with management in the mistaken belief that management would see it in their interest to protect the union. And the union leadership perfected a machine that rewarded its loyalists, punished its opposition — sometimes with threats of plant closings — while it effectively socialized those moving into higher leadership position.

As one International rep put it: “They adjusted my neck so that instead of swiveling from side to side it now only moves up and down.”

Resisting the Machine

There were important exceptions. I worked in a plant where the Local President (disclosure: my brother Bill), the skilled trades committeeman and a number of other leaders were committed to fighting the company and trying to defend shop-floor power.

They had to do it often against the opposition of the international. Grievances that were not atrocities were lost because management kicked them up the steps where the International would decide them politically. So most victories had to be won by shop-floor actions that made it clear that the plant would not run as well as it could unless certain issues were settled.

Of course there were no contract provisions that gave us that right directly. We needed creativity, solidarity, careful picking of issues, and a bit of discretion. The officers had to walk fine lines in the face of punitive contract language to avoid the company, encouraged by the International Union, coming down on them.

Most of our victories and methods could not be publicized — often the victories would actually have to be covered up by local management because they involved going against upper management policy.

It’s a shame that Gregg had little direct experience with a fighting local where the officers backed member resistance. In the 1970s and early ‘80s there were more massive, broader and more militant challenges to the companies and the union leadership.

His wit and writing ability could have done much to spread such examples. There are some tastes of local fightback, where a machine repairman protects him. But for the most part his book articulates well the program and issues of resistance, but comes up short on how to fight back at work.

“Work to rule” is Gregg’s repeated recommendation;

“We should work to rule. We need to stay inside to preserve income, save jobs, and fight back. If we follow every rule in the book, production will slow to a crawl. We can control the flow of parts by ensuring quality and following rules. It’s perfectly legitimate…. Work-to-rule is safe. You can’t be fired for following rules.” (87-88)

Unfortunately, work to rule is only as safe or effective as your in-plant organization. Management can and does fire you for anything they want. That you may have a technical legal right does you no good in a plant where the union leadership is against you, unless others are prepared to act immediately to defend you or you are prepared to go without a job for years while the process crawls.

Although powerful, work-to-rule is a very difficult strategy and hard to maintain for a long time. Continuous work-to-rule just means an unproductive plant that closes down. You have to be able to turn it on and turn it off for it to make its point. It has to include most everybody, or it just sets some people up as targets.

Somehow, without workers violating the contract by openly proclaiming work-to-rule, the company has to get the message about what is required to settle and return production to normal. All of this is difficult enough if you have the local union behind you, and requires exceptionally good organization when you are fighting the local union leadership as well as the company — and of course, if you do have this level of organization and support then why not change the local union leadership?

The Fight for Control

The control relationship between worker and machine goes both ways. For production workers, the machines generally control the pace and nature of the work. For the skilled trades, generally the workers have the upper hand. There are important exceptions, and management’s main goal with respect to the trades is to deskill them and turn them into the same kind of routine jobs they designed for production workers.

Speaking as an electrician, there are some parts of Gregg’s picture that I can only appreciate as an outsider. Most production workers do not start with the plan of staying on the line their whole lives. They have dreams of starting their own business, moving up to the trades, a job off the line, winning the lottery, or finding a rich spouse. The jobs themselves deaden the mind. Quality in mass production requires removing individual judgment and variance from the process.

Those workers who stay find ways of coping with the insane conditions by blocking them out. They feel powerless about changing anything and with few exceptions are not empowered by the union, so they hold on to the dream of a healthy retirement when they can do what they want. And that is the tragedy that Gregg documents so well: destroying the jobs and the retirement hopes of millions of workers in the name of helping an incompetent greedy management “become competitive.”

For some of us, organization is what makes the vulnerable fingers into a powerful fist. Gregg’s view of rank-and-file organization was mixed. He was one of the founders of Soldiers of Solidarity, a network of militant UAW members, but he resisted attempts to move to more structured activities. He believes the looseness of the organization was its virtue.

“SOS is like a phantom at the table, because the honchos can’t put a collar on it and rein it in and out on command. SOS doesn’t have a leader to buy or a structure to undermine. The resistance doesn’t need to hold meetings, pass motions, collect dues, and pay dividends. The guerillas don’t wear badges, wave flags, or blow trumpets. It’s the dog that doesn’t bark one must beware of.” (124)

I disagree. SOS and Gregg spoke for us in this terrible period in the auto industry, and we should honor them. But we should not turn necessity into a mistaken principle. We will not go forward to reclaim our union until we can have real meetings that discuss issues, develop real leaders with skill and knowledge to organize and take on the companies, build structures that can provide consistent communication, and generate rank and file leaders who proudly wear their union badges and openly trumpet the cause of worker rights.

July/August 2012, ATC 159