Auto industry workers gear up to challenge Delphi and General Motors

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First it was the steel industry. Corporations with sagging bottom lines used bankruptcy court to gut pensions and healthcare for retirees, tear up labor contracts, and emerge “restructured” as leaner, meaner lower-wage machines.
The highly unionized airline sector followed suit, with companies like Northwest using bankruptcy to win billion-dollar concessions from their workers.
Now Wall Street is training its anti-labor guns on the heavily unionized auto industry. In October, Robert S. Miller, CEO of Delphi, put the auto parts company into bankruptcy. Miller also orchestrated similar moves at Bethlehem Steel and U.S. Airways, both now defunct.
Miller’s initial plan to “save” Delphi, a spinoff of General Motors, included demands for workers to take a pay cut of up to 63 percent. If the United Auto Workers (UAW) balked, Miller’s backup plan entailed asking a bankruptcy judge to void labor contracts.
In November, GM announced it too might go into bankruptcy unless employees accepted concessions. GM wants to sack 30,000 workers and close most North American plants, including in Canada. After its announcement, GM and UAW negotiated $1 billion worth of healthcare cuts, with retirees bearing the brunt.
Ford and Chrysler are also jumping on the bandwagon. In December, UAW and Ford negotiated $850 million worth of healthcare cuts for retirees. Meanwhile, Chrysler is considering layoffs and plant closures while demanding concessions.
Miller, who rails against “the curse of uncompetitive labor contracts,” sums up the situation this way: “Things are about to get messy for the Big Three in coping with all of this. The current labor agreements expire in 2007. Stay tuned for a historical collision point.”

A rank-and-file movement is born. The lessons from meltdowns in other spheres is not lost on auto workers: concessions only embolden employers and fuel the race to the bottom.
Thus, radical-minded ranks at Delphi are launching a fight-back — and, in the process, challenging UAW’s “business unionism.”
That philosophy, that what is good for the company is good for the worker, has long been touted by the AFL-CIO labor federation and its affiliates. It condemns workers to play by the rules of a system designed by the bosses.
At GM, it means retirees must tighten their belts so the company can better compete against other labor-exploiting employers! And at “bankrupt” Delphi, executives are slated to get $500 million in bonuses as workers get pay cuts.
UAW’s ranks at Delphi recognize that their response has to be class struggle, including work slowdowns and strikes. But they reject the kind of strike typical today, in which union officials keep tight control — as they did in the walkout of Southern California grocery workers in 2003-2004.
Instead, UAW ranks are organizing their own meetings. And shop-floor leaders are forewarning co-workers to rely on their power at the point of production, not on the capitalist courts and politicians or UAW officials eager for compromise. A website by Todd M. Jordan called “Future of the Union” has become one of their organizing tools.
Meetings in Indiana, Michigan, and other states are drawing hundreds of angry UAW members who are strategizing on ways to rev up for a strike. In December, these meetings produced an organization called Soldiers of Solidarity uniting UAW ranks from different union locals. The group plans to picket the North American International Auto Show on January 8 in Detroit; they will be joined by city workers with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and other unionists facing cutbacks.
One of the activists’ key strategies is “work to rule,” or strictly adhering to company rules as a way to slow production. In a strike, UAW can inflict more pain on Delphi (and on GM, which relies on Delphi for parts) if inventories are reduced first. The fear of a strike has already caused Miller to slow down his push for voiding labor contracts in bankruptcy court.

Workers create the wealth. These UAW members are showing in action what Karl Marx taught long ago in his economic writings about capitalism and class struggle.
Marx’s labor law of value is the simple idea that workers create all economic value. GM became the top automaker in the world by paying its workers wages less than the value of the cars they produce.
Their exploited labor provided the cash for General Motors to expand its empire overseas, invest in new technology and plants, and handsomely pay investors and CEOs outrageous dividends and salaries.
Wall Street is quick to claim that GM can’t remain profitable unless it dumps the “legacy costs” of retirees. But retirees have more than earned their pensions.
And if GM and Delphi dump benefits, Ford will be “forced” to do the same, and so on, as has happened with airlines and steel.
If the U.S. labor movement is to survive this downward spiral, organizing non-union shops and the unemployed is a necessity. So, too, is embracing an internationalist outlook — uniting with super-exploited workers abroad rather than blaming them.

Dump the profit system, not pensions! As UAW ranks challenge a status quo that allows corporations to treat workers like garbage, they will inspire more fight-backs.
And they are hardly alone now. As they met in December, workers and farmers in Hong Kong protested the World Trade Organization while transit employees in New York City defied the Taylor law, which bans strikes by public unions.
Hatchet men like Miller want workers to believe they have no choice but to surrender. There is an alternative! And that is for labor to fight for a different economic model, one that is planned and managed by workers for the benefit of all of society and the planet.
Such a system is socialism. And increasingly, battles like the one at GM and Delphi are putting that question on the front burner.
In an appeal to UAW ranks, Todd Jordan wrote, “As long as the working-class accepts the profit criterion, it has no answer to billion dollar corporations like Delphi that demand the destruction of wages, jobs, and working conditions in order to maintain competitiveness.”
A first step to challenging the profit criterion is demanding nationalization of key industries, like auto, under workers’ control. Imagine, no more mismanagement, profiteering, or mass layoffs! Mobilizing for repeal of anti-labor bankruptcy laws is an idea whose time has also come.
Current union misleaders won’t fight for such things. That is one reason the organizing in UAW is so exciting. It shows that the rank and file, who are historically the engine of labor’s revival, are on the move again.

To learn more and find out how you can help, visit www.futureoftheunion.com.

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