Frank Hammer: A new militancy amongst autoworkers
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay. We’re in Dearborn, Michigan, at the Labor Notes conference. And now joining us is Frank Hammer. Frank is a retired autoworker, used to be president of the General Motors transmission of local in Detroit, was one of the leaders of the Autoworkers Caravan [that] went to Washington. Thanks for joining us.
FRANK HAMMER, FMR. PRESIDENT OF UAW LOCAL 909: Thank you.
Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee complete accuracy.
JAY: So give us a sort of state of Detroit, what’s new happening amongst the autoworkers. One of the most interesting things, I think, is the rejection of the Ford contract and maybe a kind of new mood of militancy amongst autoworkers, who are starting to say no when they’ve been enormously pressured to say yes to everything.
HAMMER: Ford workers last November rejected a new demand for concessions by the Ford Motor Company and rejected the international leadership urging them to make concessions to Ford. This was a surprise to, I think, Ford Motor Company because the workers had been under the gun to relinquish more and more of what they’ve had in past contracts. In particular they were looking to remove the right to strike, which had already been done at General Motors and Chrysler under the bankruptcy proceedings. They came out of that without the right to strike until 2015. And Ford company said, oh, we want a pattern bargain, and we want to have the same things that General Motors and Chrysler gave up. And the Ford workers said no. And what was interesting is the united vote. Production I think voted 70 percent against the concessions; the skilled trades voted 75 percent. So there was a lot of unity across the plants. These are plants, some of them, who have been on the concessions track previously, who were endorsing concessions to save jobs; even those locals rejected the agreement. And I believe it was even the local where the president of the union came out of that rejected the contract.
JAY: And most importantly, just to reinforce this, they rejected the recommendation of the international leadership, who were agreeing with Ford that there should be a sort of harmonization between the Ford contract and GM and Chrysler. So what does that mean in terms of the internal politics of UAW? There’s a convention coming soon. The workers, very significantly, reject the leadership. Is it going to have an effect on the outcome of the convention?
HAMMER: I believe that the kind of energy that emerged in this no vote is going to translate into activity at the convention. There are some rank-and-file members coming out of those locals that have been elected as delegates, and I don’t think they’re going to represent the majority, but they represent a significant voice saying we’ve got to do something to change. Our union has gone down to 355,000 members down from a high of 1.5 million, and the things that we’ve been doing for the last 30 years are obviously not working, and we’re looking for something different. We have to make a change in the direction of the UAW. And I think that’s the kind of energy that’s going to come into the convention. It’s also going to come from GM Delphi workers, who were also being encouraged by the leadership to make concessions to General Motors, that the Delphi plants are now returning to General Motors. And the Delphi workers, even though they have their backs up against the wall, said, no, we’re not going to do this; we’re going to defend what we have. And that spirit is also going to come into the convention.
JAY: So this is pretty significant. If workers are starting to get that concessions don’t defend jobs, that you make concessions and you lose jobs anyway, and they start to say no, that’s quite a reversal of the whole psychology of what’s been coming from the leadership of UAW and some other unions as well.
HAMMER: Yeah. The message has worn thin, and I think people are looking for a new direction. And what I see happening here is that the workers have mingled with foreign workers here at the Labor Notes conference, and they’ve understood that there’s much more of a global struggle that we’re all a part of. And, in fact, one came up to me and said, you know, we think we’ve got it bad here; when workers try to organize in a country abroad, they’re getting killed.
JAY: In the Third World.
HAMMER: In the Third World they’re getting assassinated. And I think that message is going to resonate when they take this back to the factories and say, you know, we’re in a much larger struggle. And one of the things that I think workers are going to be advocating at the convention, the delegates and people who are going to be demonstrating outside the convention, is that the UAW has to become a global effort, that we can no longer—. We’re knuckling under to the Fords and the GMs, because we’re fighting these isolated battles here in the United States. If we look at it as a global agenda, we can shift the paradigm and say, you know, we should begin to cooperate with, for example, the Filipino workers that are struggling at Toyota or the Brazilian workers that are struggling at GM.
JAY: Now, is there also some discussion, at least, about taking on the fact that the government still owns the majority, I believe, of shares in GM and Chrysler? UAW has at least one board member, I believe, and owns shares in both companies now. Is this going to be an issue at the convention, that if we, the public, now on these companies, we can do something differently with them?
HAMMER: We definitely are putting that on the agenda that we have—.
JAY: You’re going to be a delegate.
HAMMER: I’m going to be a delegate at the convention, yeah. I’m going to be representing my local on the floor. And one of the things that we’re going to be raising is, since we do have that amount of ownership in these companies, we have to mandate a different direction for the closed plants. We can’t allow the plants to remain closed and workers laid off, idle, not—.
JAY: Alright. So what’s the different direction? What are you going to be fighting for at the convention?
HAMMER: We’re looking for addressing the question of climate change through a new industrial policy and through a conversion of the factories to make light transit, to make buses, to make rapid transit, and to make components for green energy, whether it be turbines or whatever. And these factories have the capacity to do that. It would put people back to work and it would address the question of climate change, which is a really imminent issue. We have not a lot of time to work before climate change goes out of control.
JAY: I mean, it’s kind of, you would think, a no-brainer, given that President Obama campaigned on exactly this, about turning using the economic crisis as an opportunity to create a green economy. But when they had a chance to do it in Detroit, they didn’t do it at all. They just wanted to remodel these companies back into making the same combustion engines, and that was it. So clean, mean, old-style car company machines. So are you getting any feedback from the Obama administration that they’re actually open to this?
HAMMER: Well, there’s some movement in that direction, but we think it’s too little and soon it will be too late. There is support for the electric cars, but that’s still in the mode of transportation that is individual, personal vehicles, and it’s going to be out of the reach of millions of people that are going to have to rely on mass transit. So it’s not looking far enough ahead into the future. And I think that the effort is too—it’s too little.
JAY: Is there any interest from the leadership of UAW in developing this kind of convergence that you’re talking about?
HAMMER: The UAW is part of the Apollo Alliance, which is an environmental alliance with industry and greens and apparently the auto industry, the auto unions.
JAY: Which is supposed to be an alliance to promote climate change policy.
HAMMER: Correct. But if you look at the actual concrete actions taken by the UAW, president of the UAW is still talking about the internal combustion engine being around for a long time, and I think that they’re not getting the message that climate change is not going to accept that formulation, that they have to address it much more rapidly. And what we’ve been putting forward is that in fact Walter Reuther at the beginning of World War II advocated the rapid conversion of auto plants for the production of war material. And sure enough, under Roosevelt’s leadership the factories in Detroit were converted to make bombers and tanks and so on. And they did it within a year. We’re calling for the same transformation, not to fight in another war, but to counteract the effects of global warming. So we know it can be done. And it really means developing the political will and the organization to bring that message home to Obama, who has also, by the way, said that towns in the Midwest that have been affected like New Orleans was in Katrina, but it was affected by a financial crisis, should be addressed at the same level of emergency as was or should have been New Orleans. So we’re saying, for the sake of the economy of the Midwest and for the sake of climate change, that they have to move rapidly to make a conversion of these auto plants, and they should use the fact that they have ownership of these companies to make that determination to go ahead with it.
JAY: Thanks very much for joining us.
HAMMER: Thank you very much.
JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network. And don’t forget the Donate button. It’s either here or up there. Or if you’re in the US, you can text the word “news” to 85944 and you’ll be sending us $5.
DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.