GM ups ante in battle with United Auto Workers

Issue 

By Barry Sheppard

In a letter to managers, top General Motors executives have ordered all operations except those related to the company's new full-size pick-up truck halted, and all "non-essential" workers laid off, reports the Wall Street Journal. "It will be the widest shutdown of GM since a 67-day national strike by the UAW [United Auto Workers] in 1970", the mouthpiece for big business states.

Meanwhile, UAW workers in Dayton, Ohio, voted by an 80% margin to authorise strikes at two brake plants there that struck in 1996. That walkout ended after 17 days, but cost GM US$900 million, as assembly plants were forced to shut down. That strike ended when the company promised to preserve jobs, but the workers feel those promises were broken.

GM has begun to outsource more of its brake business, but that process is far from complete.

"It's unlikely that top UAW leaders would authorize a strike at Dayton until after the Flint walkouts were ended, but UAW officials have warned that there could be walkouts at Dayton and another plant in Indianapolis unless relations with the company improve", according to the WSJ.

GM is also seeking court action at the state level to cut off unemployment benefits to the laid-off workers. In another move to ratchet up the pressure, GM has filed a complaint charging that the strikes in Flint are illegal.

The main issue at the two struck plants is "productivity gains" — that is, outsourcing jobs to non-union low-paying plants in the US and other countries, and speed-ups.

John Bartholomew, a shop floor representative at the stamping plant, says that in mid-contract, managers announced they wanted to cut 191 jobs in his area. "They were walking through the plant deciding, 'We want this job gone and that job gone'. If we have five people on a press line, they may want to cut it down to three."

Taking an unaccustomed aggressive stance in the media, GM exec Donald Hackworth complains of employees who work five or six hours for eight hours' pay.

It is only some of the younger and more physically fit workers who are able to meet their daily production quotas early. The work done in an eight-hour day is supposed to be geared to the average worker. Hackworth wants to press the entire work force to go faster.

Cooperation

There has been a speed-up at all three car companies; it's more advanced at Ford and Chrysler. The company has accomplished this with union cooperation.

Union officials hoped that by improving productivity through joint programs, going along with a slower pace of outsourcing and turning a blind eye to overloaded jobs, they could convince GM not to abandon its unionised work force.

But GM wants more blood. The union's concessions have not been enough for the company, and as a consequence not only the workers but also union officials feel betrayed.

For example, Norwood Jewell is the head of the negotiating committee for Local 695 at the Flint stamping plant. An article in the WSJ reports:

"His union colleagues see Norwood Jewell as one of a new breed of union leader, willing to work with management on competitiveness issues, concerned about the future of younger workers, and free of old prejudices.

"And yet, the 40-year-old Mr. Jewell finds himself leading an old-fashioned strike against General Motors Corp, complete with placard-waving picket lines, threats, counter-threats and a protracted national shutdown of the company."

"In one instance", says the WSJ, "Mr. Jewell helped negotiate an agreement to consolidate job classifications for press operators. That plan, which could have meant job losses and more work for remaining workers, was enough to keep a local contract from being ratified at first by the local rank and file."

Jewell finally persuaded the workers to accept the deal with the argument that this would bring increased investment by the company. But now GM has reneged on a promise to invest $300 million in the stamping plant, wants further speed-ups, wants more outsourcing and threatens to move more work to Mexico.

"Mr. Jewell says he is determined to show GM there is nothing tougher than a man who feels he has been deceived by his employer of 22 years", the WSJ says.

GM's aggressive attitude towards the UAW has left top UAW officials also feeling betrayed. For 12 years, they have been working with the Big Three in programs to oversee concession after concession. Now GM wants even bigger concessions, which a rank and file that is growing more and more restive wants to resist.

This explains the decision by the UAW leadership to authorise the strikes, and adopt a different tone at the recent UAW convention.

NDM caucus

A little background is needed to understand these changes. When the UAW adopted the stance of making concessions to the corporations 12 years ago, there was a revolt by a minority. This minority established a caucus in the union called New Directions Movement (NDM).

The Canadian section of the UAW split off for the same reason, and established the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) union. With a strategy of fighting against concessions, the CAW has been able to win better terms than the UAW.

When elections were held for delegates to the recent UAW convention, a leader of the NDM at GM got a higher vote than the conservative incumbents. Other NDM members also won in the delegate elections, reflecting something of a shift in the attitude of many GM workers and in the prospects for the NDM, which had been somewhat isolated in recent years.

With the strike-shutdown as the backdrop, the convention was different from previous ones. First, UAW president Steve Yokich invited Victor Reuther to come and be introduced from the podium. Reuther was one of the founding leaders of the UAW, and the major leader of the great 1936-37 Flint sit-down strikes that won union recognition from GM. He is also was one of the founders of the NDM, and has been sharply critical of the concessions strategy.

Another indication of some change, Yokich also invited "Buzz" Hargrove, president of the CAW, who gave a militant speech.

The NDM set up a dinner meeting at which Reuther spoke. A surprise was that Yokitch came to the NDM event, listened to the last part of Reuther's speech and made an announcement. He said the UAW is not just the Administration Caucus (AC), but that the NDM was a legitimate opposition caucus within the UAW. He indicated that he had said as much to the AC. He made it clear that the political differences between the two caucuses remain.

At the start of the fifth week of the battle, both sides are shoring up their positions. This week, the UAW plans to bring workers from Ford and Chrysler locals to join the picket lines.

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