USA: Overview of Auto Workers' Strike

The article here, from our ICT affiliate in the United States, evaluates the longest strike by US car workers in a decade. After six weeks, members of the United Auto Workers voted for the union’s deal with General Motors.

Submitted by Internationali… on January 12, 2020

"I thought this strike was going to be revolutionary, a history-maker, because that’s the feeling I had when we walked out. I thought America was due for a revolution and our strike was going to be it."1

The strike, which began on 16 September, involved around 49,000 workers and closed 34 GM plants across the US. It had a knock-on impact on supply chain firms where workers were laid-off. Meanwhile workers in GM plants in Mexico and Canada resisted management pressure to up their work rate. Despite the US capitalist mantra of ‘free enterprise’ General Motors (and Chrysler) owes its existence to a government bailout during the recession that followed the 2008 financial crash. The company is now back in the hands of stock market capital and turning something of a profit again. Needless to say, this is thanks to tens of thousands of job losses and pay cuts for the remaining workforce as much as Obama’s $85bn state bail-out. In the process, the company has further reduced its overheads by handing over responsibility for sickness benefits to the union and generally reduced its costs of production by farming out to factories outside the US, notably Mexico. At the same time the company is classifying more and more workers as ‘temporary’ in order to pay them less.

Typically, the strike came as workers’ grievances reached boiling point. The UAW found that it had to appear to make a stand before the workforce acted on their own account. So, with the typical corporatist argument, the union stressed that its members had made sacrifices during the recession so now it is time for them to share in the company’s gains. Unfortunately, equally typical of this kind of union-framed struggle, the ‘deal’ negotiated by the UAW does nothing beyond fine words to redress the main grievances of the workers. (Temporary workers, for example, are promised a path, unspecified, to permanent employment.) Plant closures in Baltimore and Warren, Michigan will go ahead while GM will continue to build up production in Mexico.

In 2008 only a state bail-out saved General Motors and only a wider state bail-out of the banks saved the entire international banking system. But the global capitalist crisis remains and will continue to demand more sacrifices. Sooner or later wage workers across the world will need to find their own solution, outside of and against any trade union frame.


UAW Contract Season and its Crises

The recent agreements hammered out between General Motors, Fiat Chrysler and the United Auto Workers are another milestone concessions contract. It is like the agreement in 2007 that paved the way for the increased use of temporary workers and the shutdown of several assembly plants. These contracts do the same. The global auto industry is in deep crisis and this is certainly evident in the big three auto manufacturers. When a key industry locks tens of thousands of workers into a new contract it impacts the workforce in the entire automobile supply chain, and ultimately all workers. So the events surrounding the GM strike and subsequent negotiations between the UAW and Fiat Chrysler can set the tone for future assaults on workers. Few unions demonstrate what unions have become in the imperialist epoch like the UAW. They are indistinguishable from management because they are management. They own stock in the company and have officials sitting on their corporate boards. Many workers have expressed deep anger towards the union and the company, while it is the UAW and the big three that have created a situation where the only course of action left is to act to form workers' committees independent of the union.

The union leadership is mired in scandal from its rampant thievery of union funds. GM officials are going to court with the accusation that Fiat Chrysler had bought the entire UAW leadership. Payments to union officials were made through means of a series of “training facilities” whose purpose was not to train workers but to funnel money into the hands of the leadership of the UAW. No reform movement will make this machine work for workers. It is an arm of the capitalist class and its job is to manage labor and not to represent its interests.

There is no lack of militancy among the 49,000 workers who went on strike and even though the union had $800 million dollars in strike funds, workers got the usual $250 a week in strike pay. This was to force GM workers back to work. With an ample strike fund of $800 million dollars the UAW could have waged a much more serious strike. The UAW owns a stake in all of the big three auto manufacturers. Many workers have charged that the contract vote was fraudulent. Many still voted for it anyway rather than wait and be forced to vote on the same contract again later.

The main demands of workers were for an end to permanent temp status as well as multi-tiered pay for the same work. These were the key concessions. The contracts at GM and Fiat Chrysler both expand the use of casual labor. At GM vague promises were made by the company to give temporary workers an avenue to permanent employment. Workers in GM plants in Mexico refused to up their production to make up for losses due to strike activity in the US. GM has refused to reinstate these workers to make an example of them. Indeed, a number of workers have been fired since the strike ended over statements they made during the strike. If the first task auto-workers faced was to break with the UAW and form their own strike committees, their second task should have been to reach out to their fellow autoworkers in Mexico, Canada and elsewhere. Among workers the will to do this exists and would likely have been echoed in positive responses from workers at other plants in the big three and their supply chain. This brings us back to the role of the union in keeping a lid on strike activity, facilitating the casualization of employment and acting to keep workers’ wages down. Whether it is a large state workers' union or an auto-workers' union, the position of unions in key sectors of employment makes them powerful guardians of the interests of capital. Unions generally act to prevent strikes from happening, if this doesn’t work they then help make an example of the workers of what happens when you go on strike.

The contract between Fiat Chrysler and the UAW is much the same as the contract with GM with the disturbing additional concession to allow FCA to impose time and motion studies and movement monitoring on FCA workers. It is the sort of scheme that once would’ve been called Taylorism. It is part of the eternal pursuit to squeeze out more productivity from fewer workers. No matter how much they try to increase the rate of exploitation, Fiat Chrysler, Ford and GM are headed they way of Rover2 every time they shut down a plant and pretend their temporary excess liquidity is profit.

The broader situation in the auto industry in the world is characterized by a projected fall in auto sales by 3.1 million in 2019, a bigger drop than in 2008.3 In the US it has caused the big three to eliminate most of their four door car models and largely abandon the car market to their competitors abroad. The decision to focus more on the manufacture of SUVs is an admission of defeat for the American industrial giants who were once the apex predators of global capitalism.

It is not a matter of there not being enough transportation, or that a factory that makes cars couldn’t be put towards the manufacture of other forms of transportation. In a communist society this might be possible. The current system can only shut down plants and give an ever smaller sum back to the workers. The monthly payments for a new car are beyond the means of many of those who started work after the Obama White House brokered the bailout of the big three in exchange for new hires getting their wages cut in half.

The UAW has a history of nationalism, including stirring up xenophobia against workers in other lands and racism against rank and file union members. An extended UAW campaign of nationalism motivated the beating to death of Vincent Chin in 1982. His attackers confessed to the crime and never saw a day in prison. The UAW carried on this tradition largely in support of Trump’s protectionist trade warfare policies where they posed for photos with Trump in 2017.

The unions have helped cultivate an internalized sense of defeat among workers, fostering the belief that a strike can neither be waged nor won; that autoworkers in other countries are competitors rather than allies. In short, the exact opposite of the truth. Even the UAW won’t be able to keep the lid on the class struggle forever.

ASm (Internationalist Workers’ Group)

  • 1Quoted by a worker on condition of anonymity, in an article by Tom Perkins and Dominic Rushe in The Guardian, 25 October 2019.