Two former autoworker leaders examine how the militancy of rank and file union membership carried the current strike, how it could transform unions, and how this speaks to the larger struggle with capitalism.
MARC STEINER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Marc Steiner. Great to have you all with us once again.
The United Auto Workers union has been on strike for over a month. Word came out yesterday that a tentative agreement has been reached. We now know the details. The contract has been shared with the workers and the public. The workers will keep all of their healthcare benefits. Many will receive an assortment of generous bonuses, profit sharing, and retirement incentives. But three out of four manufacturing sites in question will be closed. The other great sticking issue was the tiered and temporary workforce. How much of this changed under this new contract? How significant is it? Was that issue answered, or could it still in the long run hurt the union and the workers of this country? We’ll explore that, other issues, and the battle of the vote to ratify this contract. The workers at two other auto giants, Ford and Chrysler, have been working without a contract since September the 15th. How will this play out? What is portend for the future of unions, and the potential power of the working class?
We’re joined by Frank Hammer, who’s a retired General Motors employee; former president and chairman of UAW Local 909 in Warren, Michigan; and a retired UAW GM International representative. He’s co-founder of the Autoworker Caravan, a network of progressive activists in the autoworkers’ union, and is a member of the board here at The Real News. Sam Gindin is a former research director of CAW, which is the Canadian Auto Workers Union, now called Unifor; co-author with Neil Panitch of The Making of Global Capitalism. Sam and Frank, welcome back. Good to have you both here together on The Real News.
SAM GINDIN: Thank you.
FRANK HAMMER: A pleasure.
MARC STEINER: So let’s just begin. And Sam, I’ll start with you. We haven’t talked to you… At least I haven’t talked to you in a while. Talk about–both of you–very quick overviews of this contract, this kind of first real strike in a long time, and what you think came out of this. Sam, let me let you start.
SAM GINDIN: Well first of all, I just want to emphasize that the fact of the strike itself is a victory for workers of sorts. Because they forced the leadership, a weak leadership because of the scandals, to have this strike. The leadership was worried that it wasn’t a better contract, it would be rejected. The significant things here are really two of the things that you raised. One is the two-tiered system. What’s so significant about that is because it hits at a very fundamental point about the solidarity and about union principles. If you can’t have solidarity inside the workplace between people doing the same job, it truly speaks badly for the possibility of solidarity overall. It’s really about the fundamental question of building the working class into a social force. And at this level, they really didn’t do anything about the two-tier system. It looks like they improved the question of temps, but GM has so much flexibility to do with this that not going to go very far, although it’s a step.
The other question is jobs. And that’s way more complicated. You have to remember that at the end of the ’70s, there were over 400,000 autoworkers who were involved in the union at that time. Now that’s down to 46,000. So, 88, 90% of the jobs are gone and yet in every single agreement, the union promised job security in exchange for restraints or concessions. The jobs issue has actually been a weapon that’s used against the workers. It’s been used to sell concessions, and then the job security never happens. But the concessions do happen. I think the job question, even if you can win it through militancy in the odd place, really raises much bigger questions about capitalism, about restructuring, about the environment and where things are going. That’s what we really have to think about.
MARC STEINER: Frank, can you jump in here at the beginning and give us your thoughts on the overall picture of this strike, and how you looked at it? The agreement?
FRANK HAMMER: I just had a chance to review the, not the actual contract language, but really just the marketing of the contract by the international union leadership. It appeared that the fundamental questions of two tiers or multiple-tiered work structure has not gone away. I did notice that among the two tiers of seniority workers, that is to say the legacy workers and the in progression, that at the end of the four years, the wage differential between those two groups goes away. That, to me, is fairly significant. However, the progression employees, for example, there’s still differentiation. They don’t have a pension. They don’t have healthcare and their retirement. So there are really gulfs of differences between them, and there’s differences between them and the workers that are so-called temporary. And in amongst the temporary workers, you have differentiations between full-time and part-time temporary workers.
All those differentiations continue to co-exist in this new agreement. They do give the temporary workers a means by which to reach permanent status, but it’s over not a 90-day period, like it used to be, but it’s now over a three-year period. It allows for layoffs up to 30 days, but if you’re actually beyond the 30-day layoff, you have to start all over again in trying to become a permanent worker. So the differentiations remain. The last item I would point out is what the highlights don’t talk about. That is the formation by General Motors of the GM Subsystems LLC, which is governed by an entirely different agreement. My supposition is that they’re going to have a lot more workers come in on their GM Subsystems LLC than they will GM.
MARC STEINER: These workers would be outside the union then, right? Outside the autoworkers union?
FRANK HAMMER: They will be part of the union, but covered by a different contract again.
MARC STEINER: Yeah. So not to get too deep in the weeds here, but you have a tier four with outsources jobs; tier three, the temporary workers; tier two, in progression workers we talked about; and tier one, the legacy workers, which are the men and women who have been there a long time. I’m just curious; when you look at what’s happening now with this contract, how widespread do you think the feeling of betrayal is, when they look at this and where workers, how they might respond to that. I mean, could this be one of the sticking points that brings more workers to say no to this contract? Or, do you think workers themselves in the immediate sense could be bought off because of some of the financial benefits that the long-term workers are getting from this contract? Which to me seems looks like almost it was kind of a divide-and-conquer on GM’s part. At the same time, it showed the power of the union in pushing for more than they thought they were going to get. Sam, you want to jump in first?
SAM GINDIN: Yeah. A very quick minor point, relatively minor, is that even though the people who are in progression will get to the top grade a little bit faster, new workers that are going to be hired are still going to be hired at a whole new second tier wage. That’s what it looks like. The thing I want to say about your question about how workers will react to this, it’s very difficult. I mean, workers will see that the two-tier system hasn’t been resolved. And they will see that they’re not going to get job security. The question is, what do you do about it?To really win the two-tier fight, you’d need a crusade. You’d need a leadership that was strong and ready to lead this. The problem is that workers looking at this may feel like, “Well, we’ve been on strike for a long time. It doesn’t look like the union leadership is going to lead this fight. Therefore, is it worth staying out when it doesn’t look like we can win?” And the question it raises is: to really win this kind of a fight, you have to change the union. And the question is, what’s going to happen after this? Are workers going to learn that they really have to take on the union leadership? They really have to build the kind of strength inside the union, including maybe taking over the leadership itself, so they can prepare to take on these battles. You can’t take them on if you’re not trying to change the union.
MARC STEINER: Let’s take a look at this. This is a really interesting still that we pulled out here. This worker from Lordstown. He says in this piece, “We feel violated by General Motors, and hope that the UAW doesn’t betray our trust in them.” And this is an active leader and one of the workers in Lordstown. The question here becomes: will this be the sentiment that says, “No” until you broaden this out to ensure that new workers coming in are going to be part of the union, that you’re not going to bring in workers that are part of another LLC that’s going to be paid less money. Some of them I’ve read $15 an hour as opposed to $20 or $28 or $42 an hour. I mean, could this be a point that stops this contract from being ratified? If so, what the hell does that mean? You want to jump in here, Frank?
FRANK HAMMER: Yeah. I think that one of the most devastating pieces of this agreement is that the Lordstown plant is going to remain closed.
MARC STEINER: Right.
FRANK HAMMER: My plant is going to be closed. The Baltimore Transmission Plant will be closed.
MARC STEINER: Right.
FRANK HAMMER: And what’s interesting I think, I reflect back to an earlier letter that was put out by Terry Dittes, the UAW GM vice president. He said the priority was going to be to bring in new work into the closed plants and that they were going to do that. And if it meant sacrificing the demands around two tier, that would be done. Clearly, that fight has been lost. I think it really raises some basic questions about the impacts of the closed plants on a town like Lordstown. Certainly here in Warren. I think that… Reflecting on what the UAW says in these highlights, no agenda was pushed forward from the union regarding the future of those plants. They were waiting for GM to tell us what the future of those plants were. And when GM said, “Well, you ain’t got no future in the plants,” it looks like the UAW capitulated. What it got instead was an enhanced retirement package for people in those particular plants. So at least a very fundamental question that was raised that you were talking about earlier with Sam, about how many GM workers will we have at the end of this next agreement?
MARC STEINER: Right.
FRANK HAMMER: We’re down to 10% of what we were in the ’70s. Where are we going to be four years from now?
SAM GINDIN: You know, in the last agreement, the highlights promised an increase of 3300 jobs roughly, 3300 to 3500. And at that point, the union was at 52-5. So instead of being at 56, it’s actually about 10,000 less now. And in this agreement, they’re making all kinds of other promises about the increase in jobs. But there’s a whole history here. GM doesn’t deliver those jobs. Sometimes because it’s just GM concerned with its profits, sometimes because of its larger issues. I think one of the discussions we have to have; I mean, the pressure on GM to have those jobs always has to be there. The pressure on Lordstown that the guys are fighting; that is terrific. But we have to have a larger discussion about how do we deal with jobs if we’re going to leave the corporations in charge of this, and let corporations go where they want, to do what they want, and have an economy that we know is going to have be adjusted for the environment. And we’re not using the tools and the equipment that we have to do that.
MARC STEINER: Let me explore something here before we have to close. In more conversations we’re going to have together with you and others about the future of unions and the power of workers and how that changes in the future. Let’s talk about this contract; this first strike in a long time; the militancy that brought it on. Taking on not just the owners of the industry, but also taking on what they say as kind of a reconstitution of almost do-nothing leaders of the unions as well. You and I, Sam, we were talking about this before we went on the air together. This is where we can conclude this conversation but needs to jump off of further conversations about what all these contradictions mean in terms of the future.
Sam, go ahead, and then we’ll-
SAM GINDIN: Okay. All right. No, the fact that the workers have said that the strike weapon is important. The fact that workers have actually led this and forced the leadership is crucial, because it shows the potential to build. That’s part of the workers themselves, I think, being affected by the larger climate. Seeing the kind of strikes that the teachers had and the support that they had. And the fact that the Democratic Party is now all falling over themselves to say we want better legislation. But there’s a challenge here, and the question is, can you sustain this kind of militancy so you build on it? Can you go beyond simply making demands on General Motors to do things that you know they’re not going to do? There’s potential here. But I want to stress, it’s a question of potential. The question is, what’s going to happen next? It’s also a question for the socialist left, which is feeling its oats, it’s actually rising in the United States. And the question is, how is it going to engage workers? That isn’t just a question of policy. It’s a question of organizing. It’s a question of actually engaging with workers and building amongst intellectuals, activists, and workers.
MARC STEINER: Frank, close it off for us here? I mean, these future discussions, where this will take us. Does this do anything to making unions stronger? What is part of the struggle of the future to keep this going?
FRANK HAMMER: I think that the actual experience of the strike has been transformative for UAW, GM members, and other UAW members and the labor movement as a whole. I’m going to tell you; I mean, the kind of spirit that I have seen; the outpouring of solidarity and the outpouring of militancy has really made me feel optimistic in regards to the future. I was just down today at the GM Headquarters where the announcement was made about the agreement. There were workers that self-organized, not by their leaderships, but by rank-and-file organizing, who were there and talking about, “We need to transform our UAW.” That is clearly on the agenda and the question is, how workers will continue to self-organize, especially using social media. I think some positive things are going to come out of this, regardless of how people vote on the agreement.
MARC STEINER: Well, one thing I can… Oh, go ahead, Sam.
SAM GINDIN: I just want to add one thing to what Frank’s saying that I think is so important about these kinds of strikes. Is that they throw out the informal leaders. And that creates enormous potential. That’s one of the things that has happened through the strike.
MARC STEINER: Well, Sam Gindin and Frank Hammer, thank you both so much for this conversation today. We’re going to continue this; I mean, we at Real News will continue and cover these workers’ issues and the activists; we have to be part of that and help this along and get these conversations going. It’s critical to our future. Thank you both for the work you’ve done. And thank you both for joining us today.
FRANK HAMMER: Thank you.
SAM GINDIN: Thank you.
MARC STEINER: And good luck to the workers in this contract to see what happens. Actually, we’ll let you all know. And I’m Marc Steiner, here with The Real News Network. Thank you all for joining us. Please stay on our website and let us know what you think or go to our website and let us know what you think. Take care.
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