Rank-and-File Auto Workers Reflect on Past, Plan for Future

"An upside of the transfers is how they've spread disgruntled workers throughout the system." --Gregg Shotwell

Editor’s Note: When auto parts maker Delphi first announced that it planned to toss out its union contracts through bankruptcy in October 2005, the unions representing the tens of thousands of workers at Delphi didn’t have much to say.

Then reports of a group of angry auto workers began to surface. These workers organized dozens of meetings in Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Missouri, and New York where they strategized responses to Delphi’s attacks. Soldiers of Solidarity (SOS) was born out of this effort.

Over a year later, the fate of Delphi’s union contracts has yet to be decided, but a massive buyout package extended to Delphi workers has cleared out a majority of the workforce in several plants. These buyouts sapped much of the momentum SOS had generated.

When SOS members met again this past summer, they reflected on what they had learned in the preceding months. Following the group’s one-year anniversary, Labor Notes interviewed Gregg Shotwell, Dean Braid, and Stacey Kemp, three auto workers active in SOS.

Labor Notes: What did SOS accomplish?

GS: Before this happened there wasn’t an active dissident group in the UAW. We [the UAW Solidarity Coalition, a loosely knit rank and file dissident group that preceded SOS] had met in spring 2005, knowing that health care concessions were coming up, but the energy just wasn’t there.

With SOS, we found a way to excite people that didn’t have a forum to channel their anger, and we helped channel that anger into actions. We captured the attention of the media.

The UAW had said they would be willing to make concessions, but they didn’t think the rank and file would ratify them. That was our accomplishment: we convinced the public and our leadership that we were not going to accept their decisions carte blanche.

CHANGING THE CONVERSATION

We gave the UAW negotiators some leverage to say, ‘Do you want to deal with that? Look at all the discontented workers!’ I believe that SOS changed the conversation. Prior to that they were free to do whatever they wanted in the backroom.

Where none existed before, we created an extensive communication network of people that were never active in dissident movements before. We’re better prepared for the next time.

DB: SOS provided an example of a shop floor fightback campaign by organizing and informing activists within the communities around the Delphi plants. It gave rank-and-file members legitimate union information on how to educate, organize, and initiate a fight back campaign in the form of “work to rule” in the plants.

Even with everything that’s against workers, small campaigns like wearing buttons or working to rule give workers something to hold onto instead of being beat down everyday. It helps educate workers on union solidarity.

Our young people are being introduced into the union only [learning] how to give back, not how to fight. [SOS] gave younger members some sense of how to fight back.

SK: SOS made our leadership at the UAW more accountable. They knew that there was going to be a fight from the rank and file, and that we weren’t going to lie down.

Our resistance prolonged the Delphi bankruptcy decision. It’s been a year and nothing has happened. That’s a year of staving off cuts and making our full wage.

Labor Notes: What strategies, tactics, and organizing skills did you learn from your work with SOS? What lessons can we carry over to other struggles?

GS: One of our main problems in unions, and in society, is that we wait for leaders to take care of things and that leads to powerlessness. Our meetings were about letting the rank and file express themselves: many of them had never spoken out at a union meeting!

Before this, the UAW had no response to bankruptcy and there was no fight back at all. As soon as SOS began to meet, they did. At their meetings they would bring in Democratic politicos and high-ranking UAW officials—but they never came up with a plan of action besides voting for Democrats. They told us: ‘We’ve got a plan but can’t tell you what it is.’

We talked about basic things any rank and filer could do and realized we could affect the point of production. This put power into the hands of the rank-and-file, not the leadership.

“EDUCATION IS POWER”

Picketing at Delphi headquarters and the North American International Auto Show were specific things people could go to and be involved in. You have to go to the public and get where the people are. When we went to the auto show the city of Detroit was alarmed. Our purpose was to tell public that what happens at Delphi matters to everyone because it’s going to send a trend.

We got into mainstream media. How? We called them and made ourselves available. The UAW wasn’t returning calls, so all the messages that came out were corporate propaganda. SOS presented a counter message and media ate it up.

DB: We never forgot that education is power. We leafleted at the gates of our factories, and inside. We educated about the UAW constitution, our national and local agreements with the companies, labor law, civil disobedience laws. We put our message on buttons and educated our members and the public through the media: television, newspapers, and magazines.

SK: I attended the Labor Notes conference and I learned a lot about mobilizing people, networking and trying to keep the fire going. I learned better public speaking skills and how to frame my thoughts so when I get up and speak, I don’t ramble. I learned how to stay on task and stay focused.

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I learned how to talk to the media—be willing to put yourself out there a bit. I learned to see the whole picture. If we don’t learn how to organize as a collective unit, we’re out of luck.

I learned from Labor Notes that we need to build alliances. I want to build alliances between all the small labor groups peppered all over the country. We’ve got to become a bigger movement.

I learned that while our contract negotiations are important and the auto industry is important, we’ve got to broaden our focus to all American workers. And that includes all workers who work in America, including immigrants.

Labor Notes: At the July SOS meeting outside of Flint, attendees listed things they thought SOS could have done better and things that hindered their ability to affect changes at Delphi. What could SOS have done differently?

GS: We were fighting 20 years of jointness and cooperation between the union and the company. It’s been a generation since we had strong shop floor action against management. We failed to convince many of the rank and file that they could change things.

We weren’t able to get the leadership of the local unions to support us. Maybe that was an unrealistic expectation. When we started out we tried to say, ‘We’re not a caucus, we’re not trying to take over the leadership.’

We wanted to show that we were being supportive and wanted to save jobs. But the UAW went after us right away saying we were a splinter group. In the end, local leadership couldn’t overcome their fear of international leadership.

Once people began to say they would leave because of the buyouts, it broke the momentum. Workers found a way out, it resolved their most basic issue--their pension and health care. It hurt the union: we still had no agreement, but Delphi has a temporary, non-union workforce in place.

We failed to shut down an engine line or assembly line. We did it once early on, on my line. Production was cut by 50 percent for a month. We were able to slow down, but it wasn’t enough. However, we were able to get the message into the media. They kept asking, ‘Will there be a wildcat?’

There were other missed opportunities. There was real worker resistance at the Dayton Delphi plant, but local leadership decided to squelch it. That could have been the turning point had leadership not mitigated.

DB: We needed to be more aggressive about recruiting apathetic, scared, and uninformed union members into our organization. We could have run a more aggressive campaign to get dissident members elected as delegates to the national convention.
Right now people are scared, they’re skittish, and negative reinforcement is going to make them bolt. You have to make them feel welcome. At the same time, you have to learn to put what you think out there even if people don’t agree.

I think there could have been more diplomacy between workers at the meetings, at times people walked away because SOS tries not to be political. How can you remain apolitical? I don’t think we have to align ourselves with one party or another, but we can’t keep politics out of it.

Labor Notes: A year later, what are the next steps for SOS?

GS: This was a big learning process for me. It was a risk. It was scary to organize a meeting and turn it over to the audience. When they came up with a name Soldiers of Solidarity, people said they liked it because it was an emergency signal for all of us, not just workers at Delphi, or in the UAW.

Now, many of us have gone into early retirement, have been transferred, or are driving long distances to work. But we have some experience organizing pickets, we have a better knowledge of working to rule, and we’re better prepared than we have been in many years to organize a campaign against concessions. Pensions are in jeopardy, and with the contract expirations in 2007, retirees and people like myself are being threatened.

An upside of the transfers from Delphi to GM is that they’ve spread these disgruntled workers throughout the whole system. They’re still angry and their eyes are open. They see what the company is willing to do to them and what the UAW leadership won’t do for them.

In spring, 2005 when rank-and-file auto workers met at Labor Notes, we didn’t have this network. Now we do. We have a greater potential.

COMPANY UNION

DB: We have to educate the new temp workers and younger workers that they’ve got to fight for basic union rights that have been given up through concession bargaining.

The UAW today conducts its bargaining like a company union. We’ve lost basic union principles such as equal pay for equal work, the eight-hour workday, and seniority rights. We need to teach this generation the basic lessons of fighting back on the shop floor and how to use the media.

Once you start the ball rolling of solidarity more ideas can come out. Even if you can’t win, you have some dignity left for a future fightback.

SK: We’re working on organizing another SOS meeting December 9. We want to discuss the contract negotiations coming up in 2007 and some of us want to organize another picket like the auto show picket. I’ll be bringing these ideas to the floor. It’s important that everyone who comes has the ability to talk about what they think we should do. It’s new territory.

I get impatient about what’s it going to take to get more people involved, but it only takes a ripple to start a tsunami, and I’m waiting for that tsunami. When it comes, I’m going to be there with the information, directions, and a place to go. That’s what Soldiers of Solidarity functions for, to give those people a place to go.


A shorter version of this interview appeared in the print publication.

For more information about upcoming SOS events, email greggshotwell [at] aol [dot] com or call Stacey at 810-639-4672.