Rank and File Auto Workers to Take On Concessions

How do rank and file auto workers create the awareness and solidarity at our local unions to fight concessions in the upcoming Big Three contract talks?

Contracts with Ford, GM, and Chrysler expire in September 2011. Both GM and Chrysler workers gave up the right to strike when the United Auto Workers negotiated the government bankruptcy/bailout contracts last year. Those contracts included big concessions, especially for new hires, who were placed on a permanent half-pay scale, with no pensions. In fall 2009 Ford workers voted 3-1 not to reopen their contract to match the new “pattern” of givebacks at Chrysler and GM.

Auto workers have reason to worry that our union leaders won’t be trying to recoup our losses from the big profits the companies are now making. UAW President Bob King recently indicated that he didn’t want to put one company at a disadvantage to the other companies because “that wouldn’t be fair.”

He was quoted in the Detroit newspaper saying: “We know it’s pretty hard to support a family and everything, on a $15-an-hour wage, but we also know that we have to keep General Motors and Ford and Chrysler competitive.”

Auto workers met November 14 at a conference convened by the rank-and-file group Autoworkers Caravan, along with Factory Rat and Warriors of Labor. The conference was held at the University of Toledo in the shadow of a large wind turbine generator and adjacent to a solar panel farm—the kind of green products that Autoworkers Caravan has advocated be produced at converted auto plants.

Several dozen active and retired workers came from GM, Ford, Chrysler, Jeep, and Delphi plants. Participants took inspiration from the recent struggles at UAW Local 23 at the GM Metal Fab plant in Indianapolis and Local 5960 members from the GM Lake Orion plant in Michigan.

Local 23 recently turned down a contract negotiated by the International that would have allowed investor JD Norman to buy the plant and employ Local 23 members at half wages. Local 23 Bargaining Chairman Greg Clark explained the stand his local took in not wanting to participate in the race to the bottom.

Similarly, Local 5960 member Nick Waun talked about the efforts by his locals’ members to fight second-tier wages for 40 percent of the seniority workers at his plant. Workers at the Orion plant weren’t even given the right vote on the issue. This fight led to a rally of more than 200 workers at the UAW’s Solidarity House headquarters in Detroit and ongoing appeals.

Bargaining Convention

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Participants decided on several resolutions to use as organizing tools, both as proposals for the upcoming UAW Bargaining Convention in March, which sets bargaining goals, and as petitions to demonstrate member support:

  • Full disclosure and fair ratification procedures. Put all contractual changes on a UAW website for the membership’s review, and institute a 14-day period between disclosure and the ratification vote.
  • End two-tier wages by demanding that the union uphold solidarity by fighting for equal pay for equal work. Two-tier flies in the face of this basic principle of unionism.
  • Maintain pattern bargaining and the right to strike. What Brother King forgets is that pattern bargaining was designed to take wages and benefits out of competition. If workers in an industry are paid the same, then the manufacturers have to find other ways to be competitive. Giving one company a “sweetheart” deal puts the other companies at a disadvantage and puts downward pressure on wages and benefits across the board.

Brother King makes a point in the latest issue of Solidarity magazine: the fact that there are many non-union auto plants in this country, the foreign-owned “transplants,” makes it more difficult to establish an industry-wide pattern. But drastic reductions in the pay of unionized workers makes organizing the transplants even more difficult, thus ensuring that they stay non-union. The idea of a pattern is to bring everyone up, not to descend to the lowest level.

The cost of labor is only about 10 percent of the vehicle’s price. Studies have indicated that the money that will be saved per vehicle at Lake Orion with 40 percent of the work force working for $15 an hour is only about $112. Consumers would pay that amount for a vehicle that has the design and engineering that appeals to them.

What You Can Do

Versions of the above resolutions and petitions (along with additional resolutions that were submitted) will be posted soon on the Autoworkers Caravan website (www.autoworkercaravan.org). We are asking auto workers from across the country to copy or modify these documents and use one or all to pass similar resolutions at your local for the Bargaining Convention, or pass them around as petitions to educate members around these issues. Get in touch with us and let us know how it goes.

We are also planning a rally outside the Detroit Auto Show in January to voice our concerns. More info will be posted on the autoworkercaravan.org website.

The auto industry seems to have an enormous appetite for taking more from active and new workers. If our union is to have the backbone needed to fight these takeaways, we must have the backbone to demand that it does!


Al Benchich is the retired president of UAW Local 909 at a GM plant in Warren, Michigan.