Workers at US General Motors take strike action

This post was originally written for socialistworld.net, the website of the Committee for a Workers’ International.

Around 48,000 General Motors workers are on strike nationwide in the United States for the sixth day. The United Auto Workers union walked out of all 55 US plants on 15 September, for the first time since Obama bailed out the company – but not the workers – a decade ago. GM attempted severe cuts during this round of negotiations of a new four-year contract, despite making $8.1 billion in profits and just recently paying its CEO $22 million dollars. These cuts included major healthcare cost increases, and in order to punish the workers for taking action, the company has now cancelled the health benefits for the striking workers.

Working people across the country were outraged at the news, especially the infuriating news that a UAW worker’s child who was denied cancer treatment as a result of GM’s tactic. Strikers on the picket line face other disgusting pushback from the multi-billion dollar corporation. Three picketers were struck by a truck driver in separate incidents outside the plant in Swartz Creek. Police in Spring Hill arrested ten picketers for blocking the flow of traffic into the plant. However, GM’s hardball tactics are only increasing the resolve of workers who are increasingly angry about GM’s callous actions.

This strike is the first since UAW’s day and a half work stoppage in 2007, just prior to the auto industry implosion. GM benefited massively in 2017 from the new tax bill from the Trump Administration. Shareholders chose to invest the $157 million in annual tax cuts into massive stock buybacks across the economy, rather than maintain or increase wages and benefits for workers. GM continues to outsource jobs to Mexico, underlining the lies that Trump told to American workers. This was part of an ongoing effort to undercut the bargaining power of relatively well-paid organized workers in the US.

Wages

UAW members are refusing to back down on key questions of wage increases, paths to permanent employment for temporary workers, and affordable healthcare costs. In the wake of the ‘Great Recession’ and GM’s government-backed bankruptcy, the union conceded to GM’s proposed benefit cuts and replacement of annual wage increases with profit-sharing. Workers who “tightened their belts” to revive the company now watch billions in profits and tens of millions in executive pay fail to trickle down to employees. Workers’ pay has actually regressed 16% against inflation since 2010, similar to trends across the country.

According to the New York Times, “wages for blue collar workers in the auto sector peaked (after adjusting for inflation), back in 2002 at $30.90 per hour, which was then roughly 44 per cent more than the average for all US jobs. Today, these once-prized jobs pay just $23.48 a thin dim less than what a typical worker across the country earns.”

GM employees receive their first hourly pay rise since the economic downturn just four years ago, and after the long wait are looking to add further increases with the new contract. Workers are also pushing back against an “in-progression” wage structure requires eight years employment to reach the top tier wage, which was added to the contracts after the auto industry crash as an alternative to a two-tier system. UAW organizes auto workers across the industry, and is hoping that the new contract with GM will serve as a template agreement with Ford and Fiat Chrysler, who are currently operating under contract extensions.

Temporary workers

The auto industry relies on temporary workers keep the production line rolling when it requires an increase in output. However, corporations commonly abuse the status of temporary workers, by using them as “perma-temps” (i.e. temp workers who have spent years at a company). About 7% to 10% of GM’s workforce, over the course of a year, is employed as temps. Unlike many temporary employment opportunities, these workers fall under the jurisdiction of the United Auto Workers union after 90 days. However, their temporary status means they do not receive regular benefits, such as vacation time, do not have the right to transfer locations if their plant closes, and are paid significantly less than permanent full-time employees.

UAW is fighting to change that in this new contract. The union is demanding a path for these temporary full-time employees to become permanent, with full access to the wages and benefits negotiated by the union. UAW sued GM in January for breach of contract over the abuse of temporary worker status. This demand in support of temp workers has gained the union significant community support, especially in industrial towns in the South. Traditionally secure jobs like auto manufacturing have been severely undercut by continued outsourcing and the usage of permatemps. Union members and their communities are hoping that forcing GM to hiring permatemps on a permanent basis will force similar changes in factories like Nissan, which has factors that employ 60% or more temporary workers. This solidarity among auto workers has sparked an outpouring of support from workers who struggle with the challenges of temporary status in their own industries.

Affordable healthcare

Just as the West Virginia teachers struck successfully for 11 days in 2017 over healthcare (and other) issues, GM employees are determined to fight back against attacks on their health care benefits. Workers describe the repetitive wear and tear on their bodies. Most long-term workers live day-to-day with injuries and pain as a result of the job. Strong union negotiations in the past have secured UAW members generous, but necessary health-care benefits. Under the previous contract, workers pay just 3% of healthcare costs out of pocket, compared to the average U.S. worker who struggles to pay over 28% of healthcare costs.

During negotiations, GM attempted to force through changes that would place 15% of the cost burden on workers despite billions in annual profits. The company was forced to back down on the healthcare cost increases, but struck back at the strikers by moving their health coverage from the company’s plan to temporary COBRA health insurance, which is significantly more expensive. The union is currently paying for healthcare coverage out of its strike fund of approximately $721 million.

UAW is fighting to balance two concurrent contract negotiations with GM. The automaker contracts its janitorial services with Aramark, which is also unionized through the UAW. Both strikes started last weekend with first 850 janitors walked off the job early Sunday, then 46,000 GM working following early Monday. Both bargaining units need to reach a tentative new contract around the same time or UAW workers will risk the possibility of crossing each other’s picket lines. Workers on the pickets are eligible for $250/week strike pay on the eighth day of the strike, but will not receive money until the 15th day on strike.

Democratic, not bureaucratic, unions!

In the middle of the GM contract negotiations, 11 people have been charged in a case alleging a multi-year conspiracy involving senior UAW officials embezzling millions to live like the bosses. Most of the cases have been centered on a training facility run by UAW and Fiat Chrysler, but GM is trying to use the case to paint the union, the negotiations, and the strike, as being shady and corrupt. To every worker in America, it’s obvious that the complaints of the workers and the conditions are legitimate, and so is the fight.

In fact, the right-wing Richard Berman funded ‘Center for Union Facts’ has started a website, UAWinvestigation.com, seeking to misdirect the legitimate frustration, anger and disillusionment of the UAW rank and file towards abandoning the union. This just a recent example of one of the many lines of attack American capitalism has used to smear the labour movement since its inception.

Rank and file members have plenty of reasons to distrust the leadership already; lack of aggressiveness and militancy, lack of transparency in negotiations, too much emphasis on spending money on lobbying politicians and not enough on organizing, and high salaries for officers. However, the fact remains, even with labour only a shadow of its full glory in the 1930s, unionized workers take home more pay, have better benefits, more reasonable schedules, and safer workplaces.

Union members across the US should use this case to launch a rank and file campaign for democracy, transparency, and accountability, not just in the UAW, but in every union in the country. With fighting leadership and a clean house, the American labour movement can go on the offensive and continue to build momentum, accelerating the growing popularity of unions as workers continue to look for ways to fight back.

Political significance

This strike at GM, alongside the Stop and Shop and AT&T workers, earlier this year, may mean the rebirth in the US labour movement, first sparked by the incredible West Virginia Teachers Strike, is moving boldly from the public sector into the private (“Successful strikes beget more strikes”). Broad fury at the overwhelming levels of inequality in the United States is sparking a new militancy in labour organizing. Public opinion is solidly on the strikers’ side. The Teamsters Union announced their solidarity with the UAW workers when the strike opened and are refusing to cross picket lines to deliver parts or cars.

The autoworkers, like the teachers, are making it clear that they’re not just striking for themselves. UAW should consider striking at other manufacturers, and the AFL-CIO should coordinate solidarity strikes and other action from unions in other portions of GM’s supply chains. This includes the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which represent workers at an engine plant, or internationally to unionized GM workforces in Canada, represented by unions, such as Unifor. The UAW should even look to organize the GM plants in Mexico to beat the boss’s at their own outsourcing game!

We Demand:

  • Solidarity with the Striking Workers! Don’t cross the picket line, be it a GM factory, office, or dealership!
  • Drop the charges against the arrested strikers! Defend the right to unionize and strike!
  • Resist the cuts! Billionaire companies cannot short-change their workers.
  • For Democracy, Transparency, and Equality in our unions! For regular membership meetings, elections for all positions, and officers serving under the same contract and pay rate as their union members.
  • Occupy the plants against closures! Workers should continue to operate the plants that the CEO’s threaten to outsource.
  • Make the strike international like Amazon & Google! We call for solidarity actions from IBEW, Unifor, and all other unions in the GM supply chain.
  • For public ownership of General Motors and other car manufacturers under democratic workers’ control and management.
  • A jobs programme to transition auto workers and employees in other polluting industries to sustainable industries such as public transit and green energy.
  • Build a worker’s party free of corporate domination!
  • End multi-tier pay and benefits, temporary and contract employment. One job, one pay scale based on seniority. No more than three years from hire to full pay for entry-level jobs.
  • End plant closures, reopen the shuttered plants!
  • No concessions on pensions and health care. For a uniform, defined benefit pension with full healthcare for all!
  • Union control over health and safety.
  • Retool the auto industry – for a workers’ Green New Deal to save jobs and fight climate change.