GM’s “Northern Strategy”: Go Non-Union

Green Battery Plant Opens Non-Union

The “reinvention” of the “New GM” has begun with the opening of a lithium-ion battery plant in Brownstown, Michigan, near Detroit. The event was remarkable not only because the Brownstown plant signals GM’s return to the production of an electric vehicle but also because, for the first time in about 30 years, GM has opened a non-union plant in the U.S.

The new plant is funded in part by taxpayer dollars, and GM is not rehiring any of the thousands of UAW members who were laid off when their plants closed—despite union promises that workers’ concessions on pay, benefits, and speed of work would save GM and were their only chance for job security.

The plant, a wholly owned subsidiary of General Motors, opened on January 7 and currently employs 25 hourly workers. Last year former GM CEO Fritz Henderson said GM planned to hire new workers to fill 100 hourly jobs at second-tier wages of about $14 an hour. (Henderson, who was fired by GM, is now being paid $60,000 a month as a “consultant” to work 20 hours a month—$3,000 an hour.)

Speaking at the battery plant’s opening, new GM Chairman Ed Whitacre spoke of the company’s opportunities in the transformation to “green” products and jobs. Apparently, GM’s transformation doesn’t include UAW representation, as Ed Niedermeyer points out in his blog thetruthaboutcars.com: “If GM can get away with using non-union workers at a crucial plant that’s supposed to represent the firm’s future, things aren’t looking so good for our friends in organized labor.”

GM appears to have a strategy to bust our seriously weakened union—a move in which the UAW leadership has been knowingly or unknowingly complicit. It’s not hard to understand GM’s objective. The company appears to be emulating the move by Delphi to create a low wage, non-union workforce.

What’s the UAW’s response? At this point it’s hard to determine because the silence from Solidarity House has been deafening. Sources at the UAW International say an organizing drive is taking place at the Brownstown plant.

The hiring at the battery plant is one indication of GM’s strategy and the UAW’s lack of one. Why couldn’t the UAW negotiate the right of laid-off UAW/GM members in the area to transfer to the Brownstown plant?

The same thing is happening at the Powertrain plant in Baltimore, where new work coming in is considered a “stand-alone” operation and new workers are being hired, while laid-off members wait for work. In Baltimore, however, the new workers will be part of the Baltimore local, Local 239.

More Non-Union Work

A second indication of the UAW’s complicity in its own downfall is its agreement to allow GM to outsource work that isn’t directly related to the assembly of the vehicle. GM is not only outsourcing such “non-core” work, but also trying to ensure that non-union workers perform the work.

First, GM joined with Chrysler and Toyota to outsource Teamster car haulers’ work to non-union trucking firms. They have replaced the Teamster drivers at Ryder Truck with a non-union company.

Second, GM appears to be giving the green light to outside contractors to fight union organizing drives. In the past, suppliers were at least told they should be “union-friendly.”

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When the UAW agreed to allow GM to outsource sanitation work several years ago, local unions (such as my local, Local 909 in Warren, Michigan) organized new in-plant sanitation workers and negotiated a contract for them—all with little or no interference from the new employer.

Now GM is changing its tune. The UAW allowed skilled trades jobs to be outsourced last year, and according to companies currently bidding on this work, GM has “no opinion” if they should be “union friendly.” This is a sure signal to outside contractors to fight union organizing drives for contractor employees working at GM facilities.

Southern Strategy

History serves as a stern reminder that, indeed, the past is prologue. In the early 1970s the power of the UAW was at its zenith. With 1.5 million members and the power to bring auto production to a halt, the union won remarkable gains for its members. The UAW’s historic 68-day strike in 1970 and the 1973 negotiations with GM resulted in a 13 percent wage increase, improved health care, and retirement after 30 hard years of work.

In response, General Motors instituted its “Southern Strategy” in the mid-1970s. The strategy was designed to reduce the union’s power by duplicating GM’s operations in non-union Southern states, thus allowing GM to continue production in the Southern plants if the UAW struck in the North.

Several UAW organizing efforts in the late 1970s and early 1980s at the Southern plants failed. It was not until the UAW agreed to national contract concessions in early 1982 that GM agreed to card check in the South. Concessions paved the way for union recognition at the Southern plants—but they also led to the loss of most of the major gains made in the 1970s and the continued downsizing of jobs at GM.

Despite every concession by the UAW to save jobs, despite every effort by the UAW to improve quality and productivity, it must now be apparent that concessions will not solve this dilemma. There is no more to give.

Some are fighting back. The Teamsters have taken to the streets to protest the replacement of union car haulers.

But as GM pursues a new “Northern Strategy” to open new high-tech, non-union “green” plants in the UAW’s backyard, where’s the UAW’s strategy?

There has been a vacuum in leadership at the UAW. At no time has anyone in the leadership come forward and advocated a plan to change the downward slide. There has been no Walter Reuther to step forward to demand a 12-point plan to re-industrialize the country through investment in closed plants to build mass transit, high speed and light rail, wind turbines, and all the things we need. There has been only silence.

A new leadership will be elected in June at the UAW Convention. The membership deserves leadership that will lead, by building solidarity within the UAW and the broader labor movement. That is the challenge for our union. We have no choice but to fight back or bid farewell to organized labor in this country. So the question is, Will there be real discussion and debate about the way forward at the convention, or will the leadership continue to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic?


Al Benchich retired from GM’s Powertrain plant in Warren, Michigan, after 12 years as president of UAW Local 909 and is actively involved in the Autoworker Caravan group.

Auto workers will be discussing these issues, including the upcoming UAW Convention and conversion to green production, at the Labor Notes Conference April 23-25 in Detroit.

Comments

MDMartin41 (not verified) | 04/07/10

Having worked for GM and then Delphi and now GM again for 25yrs i'm here to tell you that the New GM is Delphi and always was. We are working for $15.43 an hr. Where else is a UAW represented GM employee making this type of pay.This use to be the Worlds Largest brake manufacturer.Delco Moraine Dayton,Ohio-UAW local 696. Over 7000 members. Now in a few short years we have maybe 300 or so employees scattered between Trotwood and West Chester Ohio. We were told we had plant closing status and that we could earn our full wages by transferring to another plant. The only problem is GM doesn't reconize us so we are being passed over. GM now has two SPO plants in West Chester,Ohio. At the time our plant was being slated to close we had area hire at the SPO in West Chester.As your senority pervailed you got to transfer. When 2007 contract was negotiated they(GM)put a fense around all the SPOs.That did away with our area hire.In Aug. of 2008 GM opened another SPO about a mile from the other SPO location as part of our closing agreement. Here you have two plants doing the same work and are really the same work force but paying two different wages. There are employees with 3 and 4 years of service making double the amount of pay compared to people with 20yrs. or more of service. We also have temporary skilled tradesmen that was hired to help with the closing of our plant in Dayton. They were hired with a severance package already prenegotiated for them.Long story short they were hired full time with full wages and now put tape on a box for $33.00hr.Once again 3yrs versus 25yrs Employees better be alert!!

Mike Wilzoch | 03/29/10

To lloydchristian37: I also have been surprised at the lack of reporting in Labor Notes on this subject, which is clearly on the cutting edge of how we proceed as a movement and deal with corporate America. They have historically at least laid out an analysis and spurred dialogue on issues of this magnitude, even when such reporting would be embarrassing to some with strong LN ties like the CNA's Rose Ann DeMoro, who cut her Faustian deal with Stern while other real progressives have been calling out SEIU for indefensible harm to the working class. While recognizing that there’s blood on the floor all over this magila, as a 23 year vet of SEIU who knows the players and whose career ended at the UHW purge, I do not pretend to be an impartial observer--especially as incompetent idiots who named names and signed the oath trashed the hopes of 750 workers in the last campaign I was working on—with the IU collaborating with the rat employer’s attorneys to sink a 6 year battle to have a Union.

But there is no mystery why all of labor and most progressives are opposed to Stern's openly servile posture towards employers and hostility to dissent. Reading his "A Country that Works" helps to explain the tortured rationalizations and treasonous attempts to silence dissent in the ranks by their botched corporate takeover of UHW, their pathetic raid on UNITE HERE, and unwittingly becoming the poster child for making it easy to sweep EFCA off the table.

If you haven’t already, I recommend "Solidarity Divided" by Bill Fletcher and Fernando Gapasin as an excellent historical and detailed analysis of the broader issues, applied to SEIU and labor in general. Also check out beyondchron.org, a Bay Area blog that has covered this from many angles for a while now, most recently detailing SEIU’s sellout of a Community Benefits Agreement, and the spectacle of an International Union using millions of members’ dues to sue dissidents in Federal Court. With the exception of daily reports by sycophantic SEIU loyalists who can be found at firedoglake.com (run by Stern’s new partner), this is going about as well as their other idiotic enterprises—but has huge implications for other local leaders who might have the bad manners one day to stand up to their International leaders when they’ve also lost their principles “…their equilibrium, their car keys and their pride.”

DefMillwright (not verified) | 03/19/10

Unfortunately, I dont believe much will change. The Union has a lot of "newer" members that are scared to death of not getting a paycheck either because of layoffs or a strike. Here are some of my thoughts in reguards to your article.

"When the UAW agreed to allow GM to outsource sanitation work several years ago, local unions (such as my local, Local 909 in Warren, Michigan) organized new in-plant sanitation workers and negotiated a contract for them—all with little or no interference from the new employer."
Our Local 211 did the same with the group brought in for the janitorial work. However our local is fighting to get some of the work back at least...the cleaning of the actual equipment etc that was "general labor" rather than "janitorial"

"Despite every concession by the UAW to save jobs, despite every effort by the UAW to improve quality and productivity, it must now be apparent that concessions will not solve this dilemma. There is no more to give."
Concessions are never the real answer. The big 3, when a new job is ready to be awarded, already know where it is going...they just use the concession card to see what all they can get from a plant, and unfortunately for us it works almost every time.

"A new leadership will be elected in June at the UAW Convention."
I would rephrase this as A new leadership will be rubber stamped in June at the UAW Convention. There is never any real election as whoever is "nominated" by the leadership will be elected.

lloydchristian37 (not verified) | 02/23/10

As someone who's sympathetic to the goals of Labor Notes, but sometimes doubtful of their intellectual integrity, this article is a breath of fresh air, depressing as hell, but refreshing.

If every article on Labor Notes was half as good as this, you'd be the best progressive publication in the country. Important news, with local detail and a philosophical but not political angle. I love it.

Compare this to the 'reporting' of establishing a 'pattern' in the service sector. That article was 25 words and basically designed to show how evil Andy Stern is and how great John Wilhelm is. That may be true, but pretending not very well thought out opinion is news or analysis, doesn't make it true. This article makes it clear that large unions like the UAW, while centralized and hierarchical, aren't a single person, there's nuance and areas of grey. Often you're reporting is best when it comes to the UAW and Teamsters, I get that, but we need this level of reporting on what's happening between SEIU and UNITE HERE and NUHW.