Reflections of an American Axle strike supporter

After an 87-day strike that started in the depths of a snowy and blistery winter and ended in late spring, the UAW workers at five American Axle plants in Michigan and New York voted to accept a deeply concessionary contract and return to work. Wages will be reduced by $5-7 an hour along with freezing pensions, outlawing the right to strike during the life of the contract under any circumstance, and gutting the old contract. Why did the strikers, after shutting down more than 30 GM assembly plants, and an untold number of parts plants, vote to go back to work? Why give up at the 15-yard line?

Certainly those who attended the informational meeting in Detroit heckled the UAW leadership and cheered when one striker tore up the contract summary and threw it over the balcony in disgust. When their local president announced that the vote would take place the next day, they chanted up a storm—reminding him that they had voted to have five days to read and discuss the contract, and forced him to back off. So why did approximately 3 out of 4 end up voting yes?

Reporters noted that it was the first time workers voted to give themselves such a drastic pay and benefits cut. Until the ratification vote American Axle, a company that had been carved from GM fourteen years ago, and the UAW had a contract that closely paralleled GM. Now it has been shredded and the work force has been brought down to the level of other parts suppliers. This is what GM workers feared would happen fourteen years ago when Dick Dauch bought the plants, and why they protested the spin offs in the first place. At that time the UAW International pledged to oppose such a drop.

Yet the fact remained that American Axle workers possessed the power to shut GM down, idling GM plants more than ten times their own weight. They also chuckled when CEO Dauch threatened to move his work to Mexico and China. The fact is that the only reason he could manage to truck axles from the Mexican plant was because GM picked up the hefty freight charge. Of course he’d move in a heartbeat if he could--and maybe he will move some machining work--but axle production needs to occur near assembly plants.

But they didn’t laugh when he placed ads in newspapers for new workers. And they didn’t want to let the foremen go into work and turn out a trickle of axles. They followed the trucks coming out of the plant to see where they went, and while some were decoys, others revealed production was occurring. But the UAW International said we couldn’t seal the plant; we had to stand and watch the trucks go out. At a recent union meeting one woman said she’d be willing to risk arrest to save her job but the union counseled her that was unwise, that would gum up the an unfair labor practice charge we had against the company.

Strikers drew a lesson from the UAW International’s inability to affect small-scale production. They felt if they voted the contract down, the union would do nothing to stop busloads of “replacement workers” already hired and tested. Had a union officer pledged to stop the trucks with calling for mass picketing by the Detroit labor community and setting up a bail fund, I think there would have been a different outcome. Had the union demanded that GM not use scab parts—as they demanded of Ford in a successful strike against Johnson Controls a decade ago—the strike would have been settled weeks before. But the strikers realized there was no sense in continuing a fight with kid gloves on and the majority decided to get on with their lives.

Most are making plans to take the buyout money and leave as soon as possible, which is what Dick Dauch, who made more than $10 million in salary and options last year, wants. The next batch of workers will start at $11.50 an hour with even fewer benefits. The new contract shuts downs three of the five original GM plants; two are forging operations. Dauch has already purchased a plant in Oxford, Michigan where he's moving much of the forging machinery. AAM has announced the Oxford plant will hire 200 workers at $10 an hour and operate as a non-union facility.

The militant strike ended in a rout. Not much of an advertisement for why to join a union, but it’s a big lesson for why workers need to take democratic control of their unions before we all go down in flames.

Social movement unionism

Proclaiming "socialism" (undefined) is the answer for workers seeking a contract from one's employer seems a bit over the top. Jeremey seems to think "simple trade unionism in 2008" can't work--and that there's no other kind of unionism!

Not true, as recent books by Kim Moody (U.S. Labor in Trouble and Transition: The Failure of Reform from Above, The Promise of Revival from Below, Verso) and Blill Fletcher & Fernando Gapasin (Solidarity Divided, University of California) point out. Both books outline social movement unionism: strategic, militant, democratic, building a class-based agenda.

In the AAM strike, workers were able to shut down 34 GM plants. But they weren't able to force a profitable employer to take concessions off the table. Union officials acted as though getting a good contract would occur through their ability to bargain, and they didn't have a good hand. Officials kept negotiations a secret and told the strikers repeatedly that they couldn't stop the trucks loaded with scab parts made by the foremen. Democratic discussion and decision making could have turned that around.

Dianne is much too polite--

Dianne is much too polite-- The idea that workers who have not had the experience of organizing and struggling successfully against their employers will have the confidence to confront the entire capitalist class and the state in a struggle for power is UTOPIAN! Unless, of course, one rejects the ideas that socialism is the product of a mass, self-organized movement of workers themselves-- and substitutes an "enlightened minority" for the workers...

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