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Retired UAW Leader Frank Hammer talks about why the workers struck, what it means for the union movement, and what this battle means

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UAW-GM AUTO WORKERS: What do we want? Contracts! When do we want it? Now! [crosstalk]

TAMARA ABNEY, GM AUTO WORKER: We want to be paid fairly. We make quality cars and we want quality pay.

MARC STEINER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Marc Steiner. It’s great to have you all with us.

For the first time in 12 years, the United Auto Workers have voted to strike General Motors. Some look at that 2007 strike as a harbinger of bad things to come, when the union acquiesced to a two-tier system with new employees, wages being less, losing pension funds and retirement healthcare benefits for those new employees. Now, this strike of 50,000 workers is about closing plants after Republicans gave GM huge tax benefits. It’s about the loss of jobs, demanding fair wages, better healthcare, and to benefit from GM’s record-breaking profits over the last several years. It’s been complicated by the arrest and some convictions of union officials, including its president, on charges of graft. It also represents the union showing its strength and muscle, and coming on the heels of teachers, public workers, Marriott hotel workers, and employees at Stop and Shop across the country striking, and demonstrating for better wages and better living conditions.

Are unions gaining strength? Can auto workers gain back power for themselves and unions? What about the Chrysler and Ford companies? What’s next for them? Well, to keep us up-to-date and abreast, we’re going to talk with Frank Hammer, who’s a retired General Motors employee, formerly President and Chairman of UAW Local 909 in Warren, Michigan, a retired UAW-GM International Representative, and Co-Founder of Autoworker Caravan, which is a network of progressive activists from the union and retired auto workers. He’s been a social activist for 50 years. I need to also mention that he’s a member of The Real News Network Board of Directors. Frank Hammer, welcome. Good to have you with us.

FRANK HAMMER: It’s good to be with you, Marc.

MARC STEINER: So let’s talk a bit about what’s happening now. They struck at midnight. We’ll talk a bit about what GM has said in a moment, but what pushed the UAW to have a strike after almost 12 years?

FRANK HAMMER: So I think it’s the billions of dollars in profits that GM has been able to score in the last 10 years since the bailout. I think that, generally speaking, workers don’t feel like they’re getting their fair share after they made so many sacrifices. So I think there’s been a pent-up pressure from the rank-and-file, and I believe that the UAW leadership is recognizing that the inequality has grown between a GM Executive like Mary Barra who’s making 22 million— never mind her stock options. And I think the other thing that triggered it is the continued attack on the UAW-GM workforce in the form of the announced idling of four plants here in the US. There was also an announcement for the Oshawa plant in Canada, and two overseas. But I think that those plant closures were seen as an assault on the UAW-GM rank-and-file.

MARC STEINER: So let’s play this short clip here of a former GM leader who was on CNBC, who’s also a commentator for them. This is what he had to say about why GM gave the union this great deal and they should not be striking. He [inaudible] by it. Let’s watch this.

BOB LUTZ, FORMER GM VICE CHAIRMEN: General Motors offered over 5,000 new jobs, 7 billion in investment, either increases in wages or lump-sum payments every one of the four contract years. Very heavy and somewhat credible rumors are that the current and former presidents of the union are also about to be indicted. So this is all racketeering, embezzlement, spending of funds that didn’t belong to them, and so forth. So in that environment, it’s very difficult to expect the rank-and-file to behave rationally.

MARC STEINER: So I want to come back in a minute, Frank, to this question about the embezzlement and graft questions and talk about those, how those play into this. But, so what about what he said? They also put a statements out saying, “We presented a strong offer that improves wages, benefits and grows US jobs in substantive ways, and it’s disappointing that the UAW leadership has chosen to strike at midnight tonight.” They put this out on Sunday obviously, that they’ve “negotiated in good faith and with a sense of urgency. Our goal remains to build a strong future for our employees.” On the heels of that statement and what you just saw, how do workers respond to that? How do you respond to that?

FRANK HAMMER: Well, first of all, he’s not a neutral observer. This is a former executive, and he has that certain kind of executive point of view.


FRANK HAMMER: So it’s no surprise, but I think what it illustrates is that GM has really taken the offensive in regard to doing something that in the religion of negotiations, we don’t negotiate in the media. And GM has clearly moved forward with negotiating in the media. And of course, now they’re getting their spokesmen to double down on GM’s generosity. So I think it really behooves the UAW to really take on General Motors in the media as well, and through Labor medias particularly, and to independent alternative channels like The Real News and other sources because they’re clearly going to be fighting a war for the public’s hearts and minds— never mind for working class people in general, who are looking at the outcome of the strike as very significant.

MARC STEINER: Well, let’s take a quick look again. This is another clip. This is a clip from the UAW Vice President, and what he had to say in response in a sense as to what the company was saying. And I want to pick up with some really important points in terms of what’s being battled here.

TERRY DITTES, UAW-GM DEPT. VICE PRESIDENT: What we’re asking of General Motors is simple and fair. We are standing up for fair wages. We are standing up for our share of the profits. When General Motors was facing bankruptcy, our members and the American taxpayer stood up and made the hard choices and sacrifices, and saved this company.

TED KRUMM, UAW NATIONAL BARGAINING COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN: These are profitable times. We work hard to make this company profitable, and we deserve a fair contract because we’ve helped make this company what it is.

MARC STEINER: So when you look back at the strikes they’ve had before, and the one in 2007 when in they came to have this new dual track that really hurt incoming employees a great deal. And people gave back a great deal in terms of their benefits when it came to this to save the company. In 2008, they were going bankrupt and now we can see that the company is making huge profits, which we’ll talk about in a moment. Huge profits. So what exactly—If you look at those huge profits, it’s amazing to see what they’ve done here— $8.1 billion in profits and saying that they can’t give the kind of decent benefits to workers and more. So talk about what the real battle is about. What’s the core of the fight? What do the workers want? And what will they demand?

FRANK HAMMER: So I think there are several. One is that we, as UAW members—And I’m a retired member of one of the plants that GM closed in Warren, Michigan. I used to be the President Chairman at Local 909. It has seven employees there now and it’s getting ready to close, so I think one of the central demands is we want a new product, and there are some of us in the UAW who are saying that that new product ought to be electric vehicles and other products that could be harnessed to address climate change. That’s only a fraction of us, but I think that demand is going to grow. So I think that’s one of them.

The other one I think that is critically important is the whole question of how they have structured the workforce in each one of these plants in multi-tiers, into categories, different statuses, and have really fractured solidarity within our ranks, and saving the company huge amounts of money. We have something, a new category that I never knew in my heyday, something called a “permanent temp.” And I never thought those two words would go together in the same sentence. So we have workers who have a temporary status who live in a precarious life, never sure whether they’re going to retain their job and their employment at the plant because they never establish seniority. So I think that’s an issue of equity. And I think that UAW should be coming out very forthrightly and saying, “We believe in equal pay for equal work,” and that is wholly absent in our plants.

Now, I want to make an illustration with something that happened only about a little over a year ago, where General Motors went to one of the assembly plants here in the suburb of Detroit, and created a whole new subcontractor wholly owned by GM called GM Subsystems. By doing that, they created a lower paid workforce with lower paid benefits and they did it with the excuse that, “We needed to do that to make that plant competitive because it wasn’t a competitive plant.” Undoubtedly, that’s now there on the agenda, and that’s not being addressed forthrightly. When that happened in 2018, then-Vice President over the UAW-GM Department, Cindy Estrada, said, “This sucks, but we needed to save jobs.” Well, they implemented it at the Lordstown plant, and the Lordstown plant closed anyway.

So I think there needs to be a re-examination on the whole question of maintaining our wages and our benefits, and keeping these plants open. That strategy is not working, and it’s making our workers poorer and working harder.

MARC STEINER: So a couple of things here. A lot has been made of the raids that have taken place. I mean, August 20th, the FBI raided the president’s place and took him away, and then former president Dennis Williams as well. And then you mentioned Cindy Estrada, her assistant was also taken in, charged for taking almost $2 million in kickbacks from vendors. And some people are arguing this is why the strike took place, to obfuscate this going on. So talk about those kind of contradictions. What does that mean? How does that fit into all of this, if it does?

FRANK HAMMER: So, well, I think you certainly can’t ignore it, and it plays into what’s currently going on. I think that, regardless, I think that the UAW-GM Department knew that it had an irate workforce in the plants. But I think that this has put a bad rub on it. They have to attempt to regain the trust of the workers in negotiations. It’s clear that the federal government, in choosing this moment in time to pursue these cases, where former GM UAW reps have pled guilty, as have reps in the Chrysler system, and we have now the arrest of the regional director out in Region 5. This is sort of piling on at a moment when the workers need the most trust in their negotiators. Clearly, it’s having an impact. So I think that definitely plays into what the UAW leadership is doing. Some rank-and-file believe that the UAW negotiators that are caught up in this scandal should step down to rebuild the confidence of the rank-and-file during these negotiations.

MARC STEINER: Finally, Frank, as the strike goes on, we’ll see how long it goes on. There are also more workers even at the other two companies, at Chrysler and Ford. I’m curious, how does this become a victory for the workers? Do they need— Some people might argue that unless you struck all these plants at once, the unions will not get what they want. Then of course they have the international issues with workers in Mexico and other countries. So how do you see this playing out? You’ve been at this for a long time. This is a whole new ball game in terms of the power, or the diminishing power of UAW. So where do you see this playing out and how?

FRANK HAMMER: So I do think that—And I’m really happy that you mentioned the whole international context. As we speak, there are Brazilian workers who are union workers who are fighting GM over the very same issues about temporary versus permanent employment. We have GM workers in Colombia that are fighting workplace injuries and discharges based on those injuries. We have GM workers in Korea that are fighting GM and engaging in intermittent strikes, so we see a fervor. Then also in Mexico, at the GM assembly plant there with trucks, workers are struggling for an independent union to take on GM. So we have a contextual international fight kind of like one battle, many fronts. It seems to me that if UAW wanted to engage in a winning strategy, that it would harmonize its demands with workers around the world at GM, and make this an international phenomenon, an international struggle.

MARC STEINER: So is there anything that— and this is the last point here—is there anything illegal in terms of what this country has done around labor laws for striking all the companies at once or making this internationalized? Is there something – could that actually take place? It never has taken place, at least that I know of.

FRANK HAMMER: So the strategy of going after GM and enabling the Ford and Chrysler plants to continue, that is a practice that’s been invoked by the UAW. The UAW would have the recourse to shutting down all the US assembly plants where it’s represented. I think that it would bolster its fight, rather than taking on one company at a time. This is an old game, an old approach, and I think that what we’re faced with now requires new approaches, and requires a much larger mobilization of the UAW rank-and-file.

MARC STEINER: Well, Frank Hammer, we’ll continue talking to you as we see how this strike rolls out and where it takes it. Whether it’s day or weeks, we don’t know. We’re going to find out and see what it does for the power of UAW and unions in general that have been pushing really hard in this country over the last several years to regain momentum. Frank Hammer, thanks for the work you’ve done, and thanks for joining us today.

FRANK HAMMER: I much appreciate the interview. Thank you.

MARC STEINER: Thank you very much. And I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News Network. We will stay on top of labor news for all of us. Take care.

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Frank Hammer is a member of the Real News Network Board of Directors, and has been a social justice activist for nearly 50 years. He spent the last 40 years in the labor movement as an autoworker and a member, elected officer, staff representative, and now retiree of the United Auto Workers. Frank was the former president of the Greenacres Woodward Civic Association in Detroit, and he currently represents the association as a member of the Michigan State Fairgrounds Advisory Committee. He is a lecturer in the Labor Studies Programs at Wayne State and Indiana Universities. He’s a board member of the Michigan Coalition for Human Rights, an activist with South East Michigan Jobs with Justice, the School of the Americas Watch (SOAW-UAW), and the Autoworker Caravan.