By David Sole
The author worked for 17 years at the (now closed) GM Fleetwood Plant and later served as president of UAW Local 2334.
Every auto worker in the United States for the past decades knew that she or he was enriching the corporate masters. Every day on the assembly line, stamping press or parts assembly table workers toiled under pressure to increase production.
Back when I was hired into Fisher Body Fleetwood in Detroit’s southwest side in April 1971 there were no separate tiers of wages and benefits. After 90 days probation wages were equal as were most benefits. The late 1970’s brought in the practice of “concessions” from us workers to help out the “poor” corporations who were having trouble making enough profits.
No autoworker liked concessions, but many, including most union officials, went along with it. UAW International President Doug Fraser (served from 1977 – 1983) had hinted at a struggle approach when, in July 1978, he created a stir when he resigned from the Labor-Management Group headed by Harvard professor John Dunlop. This forum for labor-management cooperation riled Fraser who blasted the corporate/banking bosses for choosing “to wage a one-sided class war today in this country – a war against working people, the unemployed, the poor, the minorities, the very young and the very old … The leaders of industry, commerce and finance …. have broken and discarded the fragile, unwritten compact previously existing during a past period of growth and progress….I would rather sit with the rural poor, the desperate children of urban blight, the victims of racism, and working people seeking a better life than with those whose religion is the status quo, whose goal is profit and whose hearts are cold. We in the UAW intend to reforge the links with those who believe in struggle: the kind of people who sat-down in the factories in the 1930s and who marched in Selma in the 1960s.”
Stirring words, but soon forgotten when Chrysler declared bankruptcy in 1979 and Fraser led the concessions charge to lower wages and benefits of the workers to bail out Chrysler and later Ford and GM.
That began the race to the bottom that has continued to this day and which spread to every industry and workplace. The one-sided class war continued to rain down on the working class.
Of course some auto workers were just happy to be working through all this. Some were satisfied with their paychecks and benefits. But undermining it all was the insidious division of new workers hired at much lower wages, trimmed benefits, and no pensions.
Every autoworker felt the inherent weakness of two tiers. Gone were the days of equality and solidarity. And all the while the corporations were raking in huge profits.
With the looming shift to electric vehicles it also became clear that soon there would be radical changes in the number of workers who would be needed to do the job. Among the rank and file workers, in the Big Three now numbering only around 150,000 where there had been over one and a half million in 1979, understanding grew that something must change.
In 2019 a struggle emerged behind an idea that was many decades old – that UAW leaders should be elected by the membership and not the delegates to the triennial UAW Convention. The old system ensured that the “Administration Caucus” could never be seriously challenged.
Following a series of court actions against corrupt UAW officials, the Department of Justice organized the very first election of top UAW officials by referendum of all the autoworkers. Amazingly, when one considers how hard it is to create something new on a national level, the Unite All Workers for Democracy group (UAWD) won all major positions in the December 2022 election and took office on March 26, 2023 Prominent on their website is the slogan “No Corruption, No Concessions, No Tiers.” Once again one was hearing the language of class struggle – this time perhaps it would be two-sided.
Karl Marx wrote in 1848 “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles … .in a word, oppressor and oppressed stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight…” The long simmering grievances and building anger of autoworkers has now come out into the open. Shawn Fain, the new UAW International president, has been working hard to inform and educate his members, using modern social media effectively. Once again we are hearing about “class struggle” by the “working class.”
On September 15 the new leadership of the UAW did something never done before by previous auto union leaders – it called a strike against all three major companies: GM, Ford and Stellantis. Workers at 3 plants walked out with the expiration of the UAW contracts – the GM Wentzville, Missouri factory, the Stellantis Toledo Assembly Complex and the Ford Wayne, Michigan assembly plant. These involve 12,700 out of 150,000 auto workers. The union announced the list of walkouts could be expanded if progress isn’t made at the bargaining table.
It should not be expected that this strike will easily defeat the multi-billion dollar auto giants. For decades they have planned and implemented strategies to lower wages and benefits. They, and many other employers across the country, have sown division in the ranks with the two and three tier divisions of their workforce.
Striking all three is a bold declaration of class war from the workers’ side. The entire ruling class must be calculating whether a long strike can be tolerated with the loss of many billions in profits. Or will the Big Three be encouraged behind the scenes to confront the new UAW militancy head on and try to nip it in the bud?
This could turn into a long, bitter and historic battle. A victorious outcome can affect the entire working class and invigorate a drive for unionization, better wages and benefits that has been too long delayed. Victory will require that forces beyond just the autoworkers be mobilized to support and join the fight.