The UAW Fights for the Future of Flint
The contrast between Las Vegas, site of the United Auto Workers' June constitutional convention, and Flint, Michigan could hardly have been greater. Unions are growing in Las Vegas, a glitzy glass recreational metropolis; Flint, where the UAW is carrying on two strikes against General Motors, remains a Rust Belt industrial city in decline.
Like many before it, this UAW convention was largely ceremonial; there was never much doubt about the outcome of the little business transacted. But this time, the ceremony was a little different and some of the business was serious.
The shadow of the Flint strikes hung over the convention, making for much of the corridor conversation. GM was born in Flint, but its eyes are glued on Wall Street, which is calling for more industrial death warrants. Drooling for market share, driven by the Dow, and wounded by the loss of $1.2 billion in the first month of the strike, GM has taken one measure after another to counter the strikes.
First the corporation filed a grievance and then a lawsuit asking that the strikes be declared illegal, an unusual tactic for management. GM argued that the union wasn't really striking over local grievances, but for job security, which is not a strikeable issue under the UAW contract. Few observers thought this to be much of a threat, and the union agreed to let an arbitrator decide the matter.
The company also challenged the unemployment benefits of Michigan's non-striking GM workers who are laid off due to the dispute, and threatened to challenge more. This could hurt laid-off workers in some states, but most states have rejected such challenges in the past.
The corporation later announced it would reconfigure its supply lines in an effort to reopen several assembly plants and launch its new truck models.
Effective or not, these moves indicate GM's unwillingness to give in on anything beyond, perhaps, the most narrowly defined shop floor issues. These issues are important: speedup and workloads are real problems in these plants, as in the more than a dozen other plants that have seen GM strikes in the last few years. But the company plans to draw the line on employment levels.
As the Flint strikes dragged on, UAW Vice President Richard Shoemaker, who heads the union's GM department, intervened to bring negotiations to the highest level.
At the same time, GM reportedly demanded that the UAW accept a blanket no-strike pledge at all of its plants for the duration of the contract. In particular it wanted guarantees that four plants that had taken strike votes would not walk out. These included the two brake plants in Dayton, Ohio that closed the company down two years ago, an Indianapolis stamping plant, and the Buick City complex in Flint.
As things stand, the right to strike over certain local issues is guaranteed in the UAW contract. For the tens of thousands of GM workers whose jobs are still under the knife or who face the whip of speedup, such an agreement would amount to unilateral disarmament.
On the topic of the strikes, UAW President Steve Yokich's keynote address in Las Vegas had a militant tone, insisting the union would go "one day longer" than the company.
At the same time, Yokich hit a favorite business union note as he bragged about the union's nearly billion-dollar assets and the new million-dollar golf course at its education center in Black Lake, Michigan. That reportedly brought gasps of disbelief across the convention floor.
With the Flint strikes on everyone's mind there was little talk of labor-management cooperation from the podium this year. Jointness remained in evidence, however, in the form of quality program exhibits by the Big Three auto companies, with GM officials in attendance.
The Flint strike also touched the election of UAW officers. With all other positions allocated in Administration Caucus meetings weeks earlier, the only challenge came from Freddie Willbanks, a committeeman at Local 599 in Flint. Willbanks ran a symbolic independent campaign for secretary-treasurer against administration candidate Ruben Burks.
Until the convention, Burks had been director of Flint-based Region 1C for nine years. The challenger drew attention to Burks' history as a strong advocate of cooperation with GM while jobs were hemorrhaging from Flint. After making his point, Willbanks withdrew.
A FUTURE FOR FLINT?
For Willbanks and Flint area residents, who support the current strikes by 67 percent according to one poll, this struggle is about the future. UAW membership in Flint's GM plants has fallen from 78,000 in the late 1970s to 33,000. The city's already high Black unemployment rate will grow substantially if GM continues its downsizing, an result one Local 599 delegate called "industrial racism.
The drop in Flint UAW membership mirrors the union's overall decline from 1.5 million members to 770,000 in the same period.
In its most substantive change, the convention declared that the UAW will take on organizing as a serious priority. One measure of seriousness was the elevation of Bob King, former director of Region 1A, to a newly-created vice presidential slot in charge of organizing. King has a good track record on organizing in his region, which is located just west of Detroit.
The organizing program will focus on the long-neglected parts industry, where union membership has slipped from 75 percent 20 years ago to as low as ten percent today by some counts.
NEW VOICES, SAME DIRECTIONS
Notable among the many dignitaries and invited guests at the convention were the union's exiles of the 1980s: Canadian Auto Workers President Buzz Hargrove and UAW pioneer Victor Reuther.
Hargrove denounced "competitiveness" and reminded the delegates that the CAW had occupied a Canadian plant when GM tried to remove dies in 1995. This, of course, was something the UAW had not done in Flint prior to the current strikes, when dies were removed and sent to other US plants.
Victor Reuther was banished in the mid-1980s for his vocal support of the New Directions Movement, a pro-democracy, anti-cooperation caucus within the UAW. According to several delegates, Reuther got the loudest applause of the whole convention. New Directions organized a dinner to honor Reuther that was well attended, including by Steve Yokich.
Another difference at this convention was the proportion of speakers from the floor who are in New Directions.
Votes in favor of administration positions, however, were never in question. These included a constitutional amendment to lengthen international officers' terms from three to four years and a pay raise of about six percent for top officers and international reps.