GM — a political strike confronts capitalism

August 6, 1998

By David Bacon

SAN FRANCISCO — The most unusual factor of the month-long strike of two General Motors auto parts plants near Detroit is that the company has accomplished what generations of left-wing activists in the factories have not been able to. It has provoked a political strike.

The conflict in Detroit is not directed against a government in the same way as the political strikes now gripping South Korea, Russia or even Puerto Rico are. But it is nonetheless political because GM strikers have been forced to confront the decision-making process governing the world economy — determining where investment flows.

The GM strike shows the shape of conflicts to come. Pushed by their employers, US workers are slowly but surely joining labour movements abroad, which are also shoved against the wall by the global economic system.

For decades, workers at Flint Metal Plant have worked at a manic pace, through breaks and meals, so they could get off work a few minutes early when their production quota was filled. GM wanted workers to stay a full eight hours on the line. In return, the company promised it would bring new machinery into the plant, making it as productive as its newest factories in Mexico and Brazil.

Despite its promise, made three years ago, new investment never materialised. Eventually the workers walked out to force the issue. When they stopped producing parts, two dozen other plants that depended on them were forced to halt production as well.

The union at Flint knows well that without new investment, production will gradually be transferred to those plants where the company has installed new machinery. Falling production means disappearing jobs.

But in order to protect those jobs, workers had to challenge GM's decision to gradually abandon its US factories and concentrate on building new facilities elsewhere. A week after the strike started in Flint, a leaked company document detailed corporate plans to increase production in Mexico from 300,000 to 600,000 vehicles by 2006. GM's Delphi parts division, whose Delphi East plant struck along with Flint, is already Mexico's largest private employer, with 72,000 employees.

According to University of California Professor Harley Shaiken, "The productivity of workers in Mexican plants is on a par with plants in the US. Investors get First-World rates of productivity and a work force with a Third-World standard of living."

While 150,000 US, Canadian and Mexican workers have been idled by the strike, they have generally viewed the cause as their own. Even in Mexico, where wages are a 10th those in Detroit, workers are told the company can find a cheaper place to build the next factory.

GM's investment priorities are the central problem workers face in every plant. If the union wins in Flint, it will be easier for them to confront the same dilemma.

The strikers don't propose to prohibit GM investment in Mexico or other countries; they're not protectionists. They simply demand that the company invest enough in the US to maintain the existing level of production, and a comparable level of technology.

But that simple demand has made the strike political, and very difficult to settle. GM will not allow its workers to participate in investment decisions — to the company, this is a sacred right bequeathed by capitalism.

Workers outside the US, however, are looking at the GM strike, wondering what took US workers so long to take up the issue.

Visiting the US last spring, Yoon Youngmo, a leader of the militant South Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, chided his counterparts here: "You make it more difficult", he said, "for us to defend our jobs in Korea, because the government and the chaebols constantly tell us to look at America. 'In America', they say, 'unions don't try to stop lay-offs or job elimination, and they're the most advanced unions in the world. Be more reasonable.'"

For two years the KCTU has been locked in a bitter battle over exactly this issue — jobs and corporate investment. Especially since the Asian economic meltdown, the South Korean government has sought to implement an austerity program based on high unemployment and vast cuts in the public budget.

The authors of this program, the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, have dictated the same prescription throughout Asia and Latin America.

US policy, which the IMF and World Bank enforce, encourages countries to bid for new plants, production and technology by creating favourable investment conditions. Where wages are high, whether in South Korea or the US, unemployment and job loss are used to lower workers' expectations. Whether governed by dictators or democrats, in every country the same rules apply.

In Flint and Seoul, unions are no longer striking over wages and benefits, but over the rules which govern which factories shut down and how many workers' jobs will disappear in the process.

Flint and Seoul are not exceptional. Puerto Rico endured a two-day general strike last month over the privatisation of its telephone system, which threatens to eliminate thousands of jobs. In Russia, hundreds of coalminers have for months called on Yeltsin to resign over policies which will close half the country's mines, and which cannot even assure the payment of miners' wages.

US workers for decades viewed themselves as exceptions to all this — not subject to the same class conflict that has radicalised workers elsewhere. But they're being taught a new reality. Capital flows where the profits are highest, and all countries must compete to create the most favourable conditions for investment.

Union organisers have a saying: "The boss is the best teacher". General Motors is proving them right.

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