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Frank Hammer: UAW leadership came to identify more with the companies than with workers and communities

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GERALDINE CAHILL, TRNN: Hi. I’m Geraldine Cahill with The Real News Network. This autoworkers story is a part of a series we are doing to understand the problems and solutions facing people most affected by the economic crisis. But we can only do this work with your financial support. The economic crisis has hit us hard too. Please become a member today so that we can continue bringing you stories like this.

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Let me ask Frank. How come there’s nobody marching into plants here?

FRANK HAMMER, FMR. PRESIDENT, UAW LOCAL 909: I’m Frank Hammer. I’m a retired UAW GM employee. I represented UAW members for 18 years as part of my career. What you just asked about, union workers walking into plants or taking over plants, the reality is that it’s actually happened in the United States as well. We have a great example of workers in Chicago who occupied their factory when the owners threatened to shut it in a matter of days. And the workers, who were represented by the United Electrical Workers, democratically voted to occupy the factory to demand what was legally—what they were entitled to, so much so that president-elect Barack Obama gave expression of support to that union struggle. Most of the workforce there was African-American and Latino. And I think they knew some aspects about solidarity that the rest of the labor movement needs to learn. And they have a—they’re really a shining example of what perhaps is in store if we get ourselves organized.

JAY: And why isn’t there more militancy now amongst autoworkers?

HAMMER: Well, what I wanted to say—and I’m going to get to answer your question—is that one of the things we have to be really mindful of is that there has been such a concerted drive to destroy unions in the United States. What we’re seeing here is part of that. There’s no mystery to why the unionized industry in auto is under attack: we are the last bastion of organized labor in the US in the manufacturing sector. Steelworkers took great hits in the ’80s and ’90s, and we’re taking our hits now. And they have convinced the public so much about—that the unions are the drag on the companies that people are sort of losing sight that it is unions who have actually established the standards that many Americans actually take for granted. I think that the anti-union drive has been external, on the outside, but it’s also been internal, and there’s been some conversation here today that union leaderships, especially in the UAW, came to identify themselves more with the owners of the businesses that they were representing rather than identifying with the rank-and-file on the shop floor, or, better yet, identifying with the communities from where we come, so that—and where the UAW, the UAW that we were in the ’30s, the UAW would be in the forefront in our city, in Detroit, in fighting foreclosures, because what we do for the community, the community will do back for us. A wonderful example comes from Brazil, where the unions worked very hard, for example, for the landless peasants in the rural countryside of Brazil. And when there’s a factory occupation by workers in Brazil, the landless peasants come to the city and come to the factories and supply the workers with food, etcetera, so that there’s a bond between the community and the union workers inside the factories. That’s been lost here. And we need to regain that strength. When Republic [Windows and Doors] workers in Chicago occupied their factory, they had support from the community. But they did it, they worked on it, they advance their community’s interest, and that’s why their community came to their support. That is what’s been lost. That’s the soul of the union. The soul of the union isn’t just about contracts; it’s about looking out for the whole entire working class, in the workplaces and in the community. That’s been lost, and that’s why you don’t see as much of it today as we should.

JAY: So what are you going to do about it?

HAMMER: Well, all of us here came today to take a stand against the corporate agenda that was being discussed at RenCen [GM Renaissance Center], and we are here to say that autoworkers have a different view of how we go forward and what we do with our lives. We’re not going to accept all these plant closures; we’re not going to accept all these layoffs; we’re not going to accept more people homeless, like came and visited our circle here. We’re going to figure a way to fight back, to rebuild the soul of the union that I was talking about. And I think, also, in terms of what Diane was talking about, that we have to look to the future, we have to address the issues of global climate change, that we can’t be tied to autos. I remember a UAW rally when I was on staff that said, “Save our trucks, save our jobs.” What missed leadership; what blinders to what the globe, what the planet needs. The planet needs to be cooled down, and the way to cool that down is to build different transportation systems and to build different forms of energy that diminish our carbon footprint. And I think that’s what autoworkers are going to do. I think that’s what the retirees here are concerned about. And we’re ready to organize and we’re ready to go back to our workplaces, our communities, our retiree chapters, get the word to them, and expand on what we did today.


Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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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.