The Autoworker Strike Is Over. Did GM Just Win?

November 4, 2019

After five weeks on strike, a majority of UAW members voted for a contract that retains the tiered workforce they fought against--but that doesn't mean the struggle is over.

After five weeks on strike, a majority of UAW members voted for a contract that retains the tiered workforce they fought against--but that doesn't mean the struggle is over.


DLY110119_slaughter_workers

Story Transcript

MARC STEINER: Welcome to The Real News. I’m Marc Steiner. Great to have you all with us.

You all know–or many of you know, if you’ve been watching us–that we’ve been covering this auto workers’ strike against GM now since the beginning. This strike was an important strike. It seemed to have divided the workers at the end or maybe it didn’t, we’re going to find out. And it was supposed to ensure that the recently hired will receive the same benefits as the workers who were there before, to end this tier system. Right now, those workers don’t get health care. They don’t get retirement. They wanted all workers to be equal. There were other issues, of course, around this strike, around plant closures and bringing jobs home. How did that fare? We’ll find out. They were out for five weeks. Five weeks, they were out. They voted 57 to 43% to approve this contract and at first blush, it seemed as if this is a victory for the workers. Then came the details. It looks less like that. It looks like, did the company win this? We’re going to talk about that. What happened?

We’re joined by Jane Slaughter. Jane Slaughter is the former editor of Labor Notes. She writes for them still, and she’s been covering the auto workers for the last 40 years and joins us now. Jane, welcome. Good to have you with us.

JANE SLAUGHTER: I’m happy to be here.

MARC STEINER: So let’s take this and run. And so what happened here… We really have been talking to workers on the line and we’ve been talking to a number of the people in this strike and folks from Labor Notes as well. And it seemed like the biggest thing here was ending the tier system that where a newer worker has got much less than any other workers. It kind of split workers in many ways. And came in, came through earlier contracts that when the auto workers, seen as the demands of General Motors and others. So what happened? If this was the heart of this strike, was it resolved? If it wasn’t resolved, what happened?

JANE SLAUGHTER: If the strike was about ending tiers, it certainly did not do that. There remain at least 10 tiers under this contract. It’s not just tier one and tier two. There are parts of the company that are carved out to make a much lower wage, 30% fewer. There are still three different kinds of temporary workers, three different tiers there. So if this was a strike for equality and bringing everybody up, that definitely did not happen. It was really remarkable, Marc, when the union first went out, the rank and file had no idea what they were striking for. The union didn’t say really. They said some very vague things. But fairly quickly, and I was out on the line many, many times interviewing many, many people, it became practically unanimous that what we’re striking for is to get permanent jobs for the temps and to get rid of tier one, tier two distinctions and to make everybody equal. But, as I said, that didn’t happen. In fact, I would say that this contract further enshrines the idea of tiers at General Motors.

MARC STEINER: So there’s three questions here–very quickly–about how this happened and why it happened. I mean, and I, this is the same thing we heard from the workers, obviously, that this was, this is what they wanted to see at the end was to see an equality among the workers and they’re… not this tiered system. As I understand the tiered workers still will not get health care. They’re still won’t get retirement. The new hires, is that right? Am I right about that?

JANE SLAUGHTER: Oh, they certainly won’t get pensions. Nobody who’s been hired since 2007 has been eligible for a pension. That was stayed strictly away from. I believe that the temporary workers do get some sort of health care and that they’ll keep doing that. But the thing is that some of the temps who are in there now will be able to move up into the bottom tier, the bottom official tier. But then others will be hired to take their place. So it will benefit some individuals. We hope that GM won’t just, you know, find ways around, find loopholes, which many workers are very cynical about. But there’ll be a whole other tier of temporary power to replace those, and temporaries now become sort of the official way that you become hired at General Motors and can be that way for, you know, a year, two years, three years.

MARC STEINER: One of the things that we talked a bit about when the strike began five weeks ago with people, was the idea that the strike was pushed ahead by the union because of all the trouble union leaders were having in terms of being indicted and the push against them. And that became a conversation we had. I mean A, how much was that a part of why it was pushed, and B, was that at play with why this contract didn’t give the workers what they really were striking for, and C, what happened was… Well let’s just stop there with that A and B. What do you think?

JANE SLAUGHTER: Okay. Well I can’t speculate exactly what was in the heads of the leaders that called this strike. It’s very possible that they felt that they had to show that they were not completely in the company’s pockets, but it could also be that General Motors was just being too hard-nosed that even these normally very compliant, very partnership-oriented leaders of the UAW, it was just an offer that even they could not stomach. So both of those things could have been going on.

MARC STEINER: So why do you think the workers ratified it in the end? It seemed like from what your articles were saying that you all wrote in Labor Notes, that the workers were really divided and, in some ways, divided between the folks who already had the seniority and the craft parts of the union and the ones who were tiered workers; that there was a real split in this vote. Now, what does that was that portend? If that’s true.

JANE SLAUGHTER: Well, we don’t know that, and I wouldn’t say that because what I’ve discovered and in my conversations on the picket line was that people with 42 years seniority who were planning to retire as soon as they could were all saying, “We’re doing this to help the temps and to get rid of the tiers.” It was very remarkable to me, Marc, I have to say, how much everybody was saying that that’s what we’re doing. They weren’t saying we’re doing this to improve our own pensions or anything like that. So I don’t… and besides, we wouldn’t be able to figure out the split in the vote because it’s not, you know, it’s not reported that way. But I think they voted, “Yes.” And I talked to people who did not like the contract but thought, “We’re not going to get any better.” And whether that means we don’t think this leadership is going to negotiate any better or we don’t think GM is going to give in. Probably a combination of both of those.

MARC STEINER: So if you look at this contract, and I haven’t read the entire contract, but have read pieces that people have been writing about, and especially in Labor Notes, and other places and the Auto Caravan and what they’ve been writing about it, is that it seems as if the workers didn’t get very much out of this they didn’t already have. And so, is that true? And if that’s true, what does this portend for the future and building that union and building the union into a different kind of union that actually is organizing and fighting for the workers themselves?

JANE SLAUGHTER: Yes. I heard a lot of people say that, “Gee, this isn’t very different from the 2015 contracts.” It does have some improvements. I don’t want to say it has none. It has some, but it’s not different enough for a six week strike. And I think it… Well, what I would like to see it mean for the future is that people would, you know, take to heart all the, their own experiences on the picket line and the solidarity they felt with each other and go back to their local unions and to elect some better leaders and to actually take on the companies more. On the other hand, it could lead to more cynicism. We struck for six weeks and what did we get? We have yet to see.

MARC STEINER: I mean, one of the things that I’m just curious as we close out, one of the workers that you interviewed in one of your articles I forget if it was yours or his article, but Jesse Kelly, when Jesse Kelly said that this could kind of boost union popularity in general. I’m want to talk about what that means. He also said could help the union organize foreign-owned plants and in the South organizing drives fallen off and that they could start doing them again. Then the quote you had there was, “People have a right to be upset about this contract because it doesn’t meet where we’re trying to go, and it falls deeply short.” So talk about what do you think the fallout will be and what the movement will be inside the union after this.

JANE SLAUGHTER: Yeah. Well there is sort of a contradiction there, that you’re hoping that the fact that the union showed that it was willing to fight would give the union a better reputation. And all the nonunion plants that are, you know, owned by all the Germanies and Japanese and Korean companies where it has not been able to organize a single one of those plants. So you hope for that. But then you also know that if they look at the contract and see that it’s not that much better than it was before and it’s not that much better than what they’re getting, although of course it is better, is that going to be enough of an incentive to get them to join the union?

As far as this immediate aftermath, I think that the president of the union, Gary Jones, is going to be arrested very shortly. I don’t know if the Feds will hold off until after all the Big Three contracts are settled, but I think that’s certainly going to happen. I would love to see that lead to a shakeup in the top levels of the union. However, so far there hasn’t been anybody, you know, shining through as someone who would really do things a whole lot differently. So again, I think if change is going to happen in the union, it’s not going to happen immediately, and it’s going to have to come from the bottom up and people organizing themselves.

MARC STEINER: So I don’t want to leave this interview as a downer. So walking the line, I do kind of want to think about where this might go. I was thinking about, I’ve interviewed a lot of the people involved in the teachers’ strike in Chicago as well. And there, in their union, what happened there was a lot of activists, really strong activists actually took leadership.

JANE SLAUGHTER: Marc, it’s night and day!

MARC STEINER: Yeah, it is.

JANE SLAUGHTER: Completely different.

MARC STEINER: No, exactly. So, but the heart of the union movement as we all know from the past was the auto workers, and they’re at 10% strength at the moment. So where do you think this leads when you have the teachers on the one side really pushing across the country and have auto workers with a lot of militancy among not only their members, but having a hard time pushing their union to be as militant as they are? So talk about that contradiction and where you think, maybe in a positive way, where this may be going.

JANE SLAUGHTER: Well, I think the teachers are showing the way for everybody and not just in the kinds of demands that they’ve made, which are demands that wouldn’t just benefit themselves but would benefit, you know, their students of course, and the communities around them. But also in the way that these unions have involved their members. I mean, whether it’s coming from the top, as in Chicago where they elected new leaders and those leaders just set about transforming the union, so that members could actually run it and have a say in it.

Or if you’re talking about the West Virginia teacher’s strike of last year, where it was a completely a rank and file upsurge that sort of forced the leaders to go along and then call a strike vote. The teachers have been leaders on these questions of union democracy, so hats off to them. I think that even a union in the private sector could do something similar. The teachers struck, for example, for the schools our students deserve, and they had a list of what would make a good school, including smaller class sizes, nurses, social workers, et cetera.

MARC STEINER: Right.

JANE SLAUGHTER: Why isn’t the UAW trying to get the public on its side by saying, “We see that the future is different. We see that electric vehicles will employ fewer people. We want to see a transformed transportation industry that is green, it doesn’t harm the planet, that could employ more people. We’ve got the know-how here in the Midwest. We could build wind turbines. We could build all the sorts of things we need for a Green New Deal.” There was not a word of that. They had their opportunity back in 2009 with the bankruptcy. They should’ve said the government is taking GM over, and Chrysler, the government should force them to transform their whole business model into something green. Of course that didn’t happen, and the union didn’t fight for it. So I see opportunities there, and for the sake of everyone I hope they’re going to be taken advantage of.

MARC STEINER: Well I think that for us to cover this some more, we look forward to many more conversations is this idea of having teachers maybe talk with other union activists in this, in the auto workers and steel workers who have a conversation about what you do to transform this and take over unions so they become the forefront again instead of playing catch up.

JANE SLAUGHTER: Yes.

MARC STEINER: So I deeply appreciate the work you’ve done, all these 40 years covering this union and what you all do at Labor Notes. And I thank you so much for taking your time. I know you’re very, very busy today, and we’ll look forward to many more conversations.

JANE SLAUGHTER: Well thank you, Marc. It was good talking with you.

MARC STEINER: Good talking to you too, as well. And I’m Marc Steiner, here with the Real News Network. We will be covering this and other union struggles in this country. I guess the heart has to change where we are. So I’m Marc Steiner. Take care.

URUJ SHEIKH: Hey everyone. My name is Uruj Sheikh and I’m the development campaign manager at The Real News Network. If we’re going to stand up to the corporate elites, then we need your help to make people-powered media. And that’s why I’m asking you to please donate to The Real News Network. And while you’re at it, hit the subscribe button. Thanks so much.