What can Brazilian workers tell us about forging a “new CIO” in the US?

Two rebellious Brazilian union federations are attempting to unite. They seek an alternative to a union federation, the CUT, that has given in to the bosses, the government and the neoliberal agenda.

At the end of June, near Sao Paulo, the two dissident union federations held a Congress or “Conclat” of 3,100 delegates who were elected earlier by 15,000 delegates to 900 assemblies representing nearly 3 million workers. A bank worker delegate explained that in general “Each assembly represents one union, or union opposition caucus, or social movement.”

The workers represented include many thousands who work for General Motors and other US companies.

The federations attempting to unite are in significant measure led by revolutionary socialists. That is one reason why, for example, Conlutas is a major supporter of Pinheirinho. At Pinheirinho, thousands of homeless people occupied corporate land and built humble but functional dwellings. General Motors workers at Sao Jose dos Campos actively support this movement. Pinheirinho has mobilized strongly enough to secure electricity and water and recently to win recognition by government bodies. That means that they will now receive all public services such as paved roads and garbage collection.

On June 6, after two days of militant programs, international solidarity and stormy debate, this unity experiment broke down—to the shock of delegates and observers. However, the attempt should be inspiring and instructive for workers elsewhere, including the US.

Brazilian unions and political parties

A radical student movement in Brazil helped inspire a workers’ strike wave from 1978 through 1980. Out of this was born the PT—the Workers Party—in 1979. In 1983 the CUT (United Workers Center) federation was created as the trade-union expression of this movement and of the Workers Party.

With that, Brazil’s largest union was its most radical. The CUT established massive shop-floor influence for the movement that had overthrown the dictatorship. Brazilian and international capitalists abhorred this development and “got to” a wing of its leadership.

Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the Workers Party’s leader, was elected president of the country in 2002 and has now nearly exhausted his term in office. Despite workers’ expectations based on his working-class roots and rhetoric, he has been responsible for betrayal after betrayal. He broke unions, supported anti-worker legislation, and let down the powerful movement of landless workers and peasants—all while cultivating an international social-justice image for “fighting hunger”.

Lula’s sell-out provoked splits in the Workers Party. These included two socialist parties, PSTU (United Socialist Workers Party) and PSOL (Party of Socialism and Freedom).

Like the Workers Party, the CUT union federation split in reaction to Lula’s rightward course. “Conlutas” is an alternative union federation promoted by the PSTU. Many in PSOL promote “Intersindical,” although this relationship is complex.

Real debate at Congress

It was Conlutas, Intersindical and smaller allies that attempted to unite in June.

In the US, union members are alienated by “one-party” local-union elections and bureaucratically-scripted national conventions. The AFL-CIO and Change to Win split without input from the rank and file. In contrast, debates at this Brazilian Congress erupted in front of the national press corps and 120 observers from 26 countries including Greece, Haiti and the US.

How to unite radical unions?

It’s hard to weigh the reasons for the setback at the end of the Congress.

The minority—Intersindical and its allies–wants an entirely new name for the new federation. Conlutas wants a name including both “Conlutas” and “Intersindical.”

Intersindical would include representatives of the homeless and landless. Conlutas would add people of color, students, women, and lesbian and gay people. Intersindical claims this would negate the working-class character of the new federation and give Conlutas and the PSTU too much influence based on their ties to these movements.

However, Intersindical was aware up front of the Conlutas majority and PSTU influence. On the other hand, Conlutas might have anticipated that the name would be as important to one side as the other. Although Conlutas can appeal to majority rule, unifications seldom succeed without substantial deference to demands for consensus.

Ze Maria is a Conlutas leader and the PSTU’s presidential candidate. As the unity train was coming off the rails, he spoke in an effort to save unification. He was booed off the platform by the minority, as a noisy anti-unification wing gained the upper hand within Intersindical. This illuminated another fault line: the two sides support different Brazilian presidential candidates.

Intersindical left the Congress at the end. The Conlutas proposals were passed, but without Intersindical participation going forward.

The deepest reason for the failure to unite is likely that major union initiatives seldom succeed without a working class in dramatic motion. There is no strike wave in Brazil today, and 80% of workers voted for Lula.

Conlutas and Intersindical may still unite. Without unity, each side will lose key local union elections and growth opportunities. Despite the PSTU’s and PSOL’s support for different presidential candidates, their socialist politics are not different enough to justify a failure to unite the unions. In spite of all, the day after the Congress an inspiring meeting for international guests went ahead–co-chaired by members of Conlutas and Intersindical.

Unions’ response to Lula… and to Bush-Obama?

Like Lula in Brazil, Obama in the US disappoints the progressive labor movement while pretending to stand for progressive “change.” Obama gives mere lip service to the Employee Free Choice Act, imposes contract concessions at GM and Chrysler, and doesn’t even nod toward single-payer health care. He disappoints civil rights activists, goes to war against teachers’ unions, and makes Bush’s wars his own.

Could US labor respond by founding a new labor federation—a “new CIO”, something like the one created in the 1930s? As in Brazil, there is not now enough labor action in the US. But one model could be the militant unionism of the UE (United Electrical Workers). The UE won a Dec. 2008 sit-down strike with community support in Chicago and is known for its international solidarity in action. In any event, contrary to what we are taught, progressive US workers are not alone in the world in our problems and goals.

by Ron Lare, retired, UAW Local 600

UAW Rank-and-File Organize to Fight For Union Principles

For decades United Auto Workers (UAW) members at the Detroit Three – GM, Ford and Chrysler – were alleged to be narrowing their goals. Workers were said to be maintaining their living standards by ‘selling out their children’ – the new-hires in the plants. Votes on ratification of contracts backed by the UAW leadership were too ‘rigged’ so as to permit a ‘No’ vote. Decades of retreat under an increasingly isolated – even degenerating – leadership mocked basic union, and certainly socialist, standards.

These were just a few of the several arguments that were being made by many people inside and outside of the UAW on why the concessions contract being proposed by Ford to UAW members in October 2009 would soon be ratified. A parallel vote, on a different concessions contract for Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) members at Ford in Canada, was also being held virtually at the same time.

Dearborn Truck Plant workers in line to vote

But if an acceptance vote for the contract was so predictable and the workers would just sheepishly go along with further concessions demands, one might wonder why radicals and socialists would organize among auto workers, even if the auto sector remains a key industry. This short article tells the story of the UAW Ford workers’ fightback against further concessions bargaining and how, in fact, the concessions contract was rejected.

The Auto Companies Push for Concessions

The financial crisis that erupted across the North American economy in mid-2007 revealed a range of management, organizational and financial problems of the auto companies. Like in the past, they came hunting for concessions from the UAW as the easy way to solve their troubles. The March 2009 Ford concessions and subsequent ratification vote seemed mainly to herald more of the same. The government-mandated ‘bankruptcy contracts’ at GM and Chrysler signed during the summer added to the vicious circle of concessions bargaining. They appeared to make even more Ford concessions inevitable: how could Ford workers afford to risk breaking from the concessions pattern?

As expected, in October of this year enormous pressure came from the company and the government for concessions, and the UAW leadership agreed to follow the pattern of the other concessions – a pattern being set in Detroit Three plants in the U.S. and Canada. Ford workers in both Canada and the U.S. were threatened with further job loss if they did not vote for more concessions. Yet, by an almost 3-1 margin UAW members at Ford voted ‘No’ – at some key plants by over 90%.

Making History

This vote was historic: it was the first time in the United States that a UAW-Detroit Three agreement had been voted down nationally. It was also historic on the Canadian side of the border: CAW workers at Ford accepted concessions, after enormous pressure from the CAW leadership, while UAW members rejected the contract. UAW-Ford members voted:

  1. to refuse to give up the right to strike over wages in 2011 (and possibly more broadly);
  2. to refuse to freeze new-hire pay (already cut in half in 2007, below average non-union industrial pay); and
  3. to stop eliminations of skilled trades.

These issues go beyond immediate dollars and cents and speak to union and class principles. The right to strike was the leading reason for voting ‘No.’ Current Ford workers halted for now the downward march of future workers’ wages. Protecting classifications was in trades’ workers immediate interest – but production workers supported them, and this was about control of the shop floor much more than wages.

Starting from Local 600’s Dearborn truck plant (part of the Rouge River complex), bargaining committeeperson Gary Walkowicz’s anti-concessions leadership expanded nationally. Truck plant workers shouted down UAW-Ford Vice President Bob King when he came to argue for a ‘Yes’ vote. Plant president Nick Kottalis and some other officers also opposed the contract. The truck plant voted 93% ‘No.’

Across all of UAW-Ford, dozens of rank and file workers wrote independent leaflets calling for a ‘No’ vote. During the balloting period, the Kansas City plant’s early, huge ‘No’ vote convinced other locals that the agreement could be defeated. Soon after national voting ended, that local voted to authorize a strike against overloaded jobs and health and safety violations. Such a vote is not uncommon in Kansas City, and the issues were settled without a strike. However, nation-wide ‘Strike Vote’ headlines reminded everyone that the UAW still has teeth that the rank and file could use to bite the company.

There were, however, some backward sentiments among ‘No’ voters: ‘We’ and ‘our company’ are superior to GM and Chrysler and ‘their’ workers. Some others saw the vote mainly as nationalist resistance to low-wages abroad. But overwhelmingly workers were fighting for progressive principles. UAW officials argued that since Ford workers have not struck nationally since 1976, the right-to-strike effectively no longer means anything. Workers replied: ‘If the right to strike doesn’t mean anything, then why does Ford want to take it away? We know it’s how we got what we have.’ The trigger for the ‘No’ vote was Ford’s demanding concessions once too often. But the ammunition was a consciousness broader and deeper amongst workers than almost anyone expected.

Principles in Reverse Gear

Even the Ford and UAW leaderships acknowledged that the fight was over principles. Officially distributed – but unsigned – leaflets argued that Ford workers must unselfishly vote ‘Yes’ to save our co-workers’ jobs. This argument flopped because decades of ‘job security contracts’ have not worked. Since 1979 overall UAW membership has dropped by over two-thirds. UAW-Detroit Three membership loss is worse. Only a union fighting for its members and for workers as a whole can organize the ‘foreign’ auto transplants and attract new members.

Even stranger was another UAW leadership ‘principled’ argument – the bizarre ‘defense of pattern bargaining’ (an argument successfully deployed by CAW for Ford workers in Canada). GM and Chrysler workers were forced to take concessions by the companies, the Obama Administration and the bankruptcy overseers. Therefore, Ford workers had to catch up – in the race to the bottom! If your neighbors’ house is on fire, then you should not help put out their fire, but put a match to your own house?

Years ago UAW officials argued that they bargain with GM over wages and with Ford to establish principles. This time Ford proposed ‘principles’ of its own. Freezing new hire pay would save Ford little short-term with few new hires likely. But a freeze would move toward cutting all wages in half over time. And eliminating the trades classifications is more about power on the shop floor than immediate wage rates. As for the right to strike, Ford did not look so much for immediate economic gain as for destruction of the UAW’s political as well as economic power. This point was made by a leaflet signed by workers from several different Local 600 production and skilled units:

“The strike threat defends our money, benefits, rights – and UAW political clout… Power in Washington starts with our power right here (for true national health insurance, converting closed plants to greener jobs and alternative transportation for auto and other workers, and defending the gains of civil rights movements, etc.).”

Workers came to see themselves in a power struggle beyond tomorrow’s wages or abstract words on a page. An article I wrote in October concluded:

“For activists at Ford, the way forward is upward but not yet entirely clear in its details. The vote was notably dependent on a ‘No’ or neutral position taken by shop floor officers who had supported all the concessions up to now. Some of these officers concluded during the campaign that they could not be re-elected if they supported the latest concessions at a company returning to profitability. What will those who followed the rank and file yesterday do tomorrow? Such questions will be prominent until union officers have to side more consistently with a rebellious rank and file. The 2010 UAW Convention delegate and other local elections, as well as the 2011 contract, are good opportunities. The UAW Convention next year is in Detroit.”

One Local 600 trades worker suggested forming a movement called ‘UAW Members for a Decent Contract.’
UAW-CAW Rank and File Unity?

For me – a 30-year UAW-Ford retiree and former Local 600 executive board member – the CAW bargaining experience at Ford was the source of both new lows and new highs.

Ford first wanted to secure a CAW agreement to pressure the UAW. But Ford reversed course, tentatively making an agreement first in the United States. Ford-U.S. and Solidarity House couldn’t get that agreement past the UAW membership. But then CAW at Ford voted 83% ‘Yes’ for their own concessions contract!

UAW members’ links with CAW members were important for the future regardless of outcomes for either union. Of particular inspiration to me was solidarity developed between CAW activist Lindsay Hinshelwood of the Oakville, Ontario assembly plant and Judy Wraight, a maintenance worker at the Ford Rouge Plant near Detroit. The contacts established and commitments made will contribute to overcoming the destructive competition between workers in the two countries and will mutually strengthen each going into the upcoming battles.

But why the big difference between CAW and UAW voting on concessions? Some socialist activists in the auto sector in Canada offered reasons. Since the CAW-UAW divorce in 1984-85, Canadian workers have not had as long a history of concessions. Some CAW members are only starting to see that the political energies from the CAW-UAW split have been exhausted. Now both unions are bidding for last place to ensure competitiveness and jobs. On this basis, the CAW now uses cruder arguments for concessions. Some of these worked this time.

Here’s an example of a current CAW tactic that did not work in the UAW this time because it was used so often before. A CAW official at the Oakville, Ontario plant ratification meeting tried to shout down Lindsay Hinshelwood while she was speaking. He claimed: ‘There are seven or eight Ford plants closing in the US!’ Voting ‘Yes’, he meant, would stop the plant-closing virus from crossing the Detroit River into Canada. But he could only have meant Ford-U.S. plants already closed for some years – or perhaps the St. Paul plant that has ‘been closing’ since 2005 yet keeps making Ranger trucks year after year. And whatever might have saved those U.S. plants already closed, it obviously wasn’t the concessions that UAW members kept voting for – until now – in the hope of keeping them open.

Having developed some cooperation against concessions, the rank and file memberships of the UAW and CAW are ahead of their leaderships. Signed by workers on both sides of the border during the ‘Vote No’ campaigns, the petition below was – and is – a fledgling attempt at cross-border solidarity. It reads: “Stop international concessions! We are active and retired Ford workers. We oppose any union concessions or give-backs to Ford. We urge our fellow union members, including our union representatives, in all unions, across all borders, to speak, write and vote against concessions.”

It is worded so that any Ford worker around the world could sign it. We need to continue the struggle that has just begun with the ‘No’ vote by UAW Ford workers.

This article was written for and appeared first in The Bullet, a Socialist Project e-bulletin in Canada

Ron Lare is a member of UAW Local 600, retired, and he can be reached at ronlare_AT_sbcglobal.net.


More coverage of the UAW anti-concessions struggle is available at:

Irish & British sit-down strikes: shop floors without borders

Irish and British workers have been occupying Visteon auto parts plants since March 31 and April 1 respectively. Do these foreshadow the international workers’ movement’s own “green shoots of recovery?”

Ford spun off Visteon in 2000. The issues in the UK Visteon occupations hit close to home for long-time co-worker Judy and me. We are at UAW-Ford Local 600 (Ford Rouge) near Detroit where Visteon has closed plants.

The UK occupations follow a big “no” vote on UAW concessions at Ford-US. Irish and British sit-downs should inspire us to fight Ford’s strategy of spinning itself off in pieces, shrinking pay and benefits at the spin-offs, which exerts downward pressure within Ford “proper.”

Fired Irish workers took over their plant after management gave them five minutes to leave. Instead, the workers put management out. Green Left Online wrote: “On the same day that Visteon sacked its Belfast workforce, it also fired hundreds of workers at two of its plants in England. After seeing the Belfast sit-in on the news, the workers in Enfield, north London and Basildon, Essex, organised occupations and protests at their factory sites.” On April 21, workers burned a mock court-ordered eviction notice. Enfield workers are no longer inside but massed around the plant.

Irish sit-downers inspire British sit-downers… historic and inspiring!

Encouraging union dissidents everywhere, striking shop-floor union reps publicly criticized top leaders for leaving them to sit outside the room where the union, Unite, is bargaining for better plant closing benefits.

In 2000, 25% of Ford-US parts workers became Visteon workers (somewhat as Delphi was carved out of GM). Various Ford plants were added to Visteon. Most were later closed or further spun off, including our own local’s glass and plastics plants. (Similarly, our local’s Ford steel operations became Rouge Steel, later bought by Severstal–leaving Rouge Steel retirees with fading claims on pensions.)

Ford-UK, like Ford-US, initially promised that Visteon wages and benefits would “mirror” Ford’s. The workers ended up with a broken mirror. By the latest layoffs they faced drastically reduced plant closing benefits and a pension fund crying broke.

Sinn Fein’s publication, An Phlobacht, wrote of the Irish occupation: “Workers from Waterford Crystal in Ireland’s south, who began a seven-week occupation of their factory to save jobs in January, donated 5000 euros to the west Belfast workers.” Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams prominently sympathized with the workers who are in his parliamentary district, but suggested that further action awaits a “united Irish economy”.

The Independent Workers Union in Ireland, told the strikers: “The IWU congratulate you on your brave and principled stand. We wish you luck and success. You are an inspiration to workers everywhere. We extend our heartfelt support and solidarity”. Countering Adams, IWU president Patricia Campbell told us in an interview that international economic and political solidarity action with the sit-downers cannot wait.

John McAnulty of Socialist Democracy in Ireland wrote: “The workers occupation was met with many acts of spontaneous solidarity. Workers from a recent occupation in Waterford travelled to the factory. Local shops and restaurants donated food. Children from a local primary school donated Easter eggs. From all sides of the trade union movement and from the political parties came expressions of concern. Unfortunately workers in the position of the Visteon workers, reaching for support from traditional trade union and political leaderships are in the position of someone falling from a precipice who grabs a branch only to find it rotten. …If these workers lose their rights who is there within the Ford empire whose jobs, wages or conditions are safe?”

The proliferating spinoffs make it hard to say exactly who is part of Visteon, but workers connected the dots. Formerly Visteon German workers, now with a Dutch company, sent a solidarity letter. In the Detroit area, Judy and I initiated a solidarity letter (below) signed by a few active and retired, racially diverse Visteon and Ford UAW office holders.

Sooner or later, occupying closed plants to demand severance benefits must become occupying open plants to keep them open. Workers may decide to run shut operations themselves. Others may look ahead and sit down to organize unions and win contract struggles. Workers need to look for rank and file leadership without borders.

The Visteon UK actions come after occupations at Irish Waterford Crystal and by Chicago UE members. This does not make a wave of sit-down strikes. But if the Obama Administration can see “green shoots of recovery” for capitalism because bankers lend a few bailout bucks, maybe militant workers and socialists can say these sit-downs represent “green shoots of recovery” for the international workers’ movement.

–Ron, UAW Local 600, retired

Solidarity from Detroit

The undersigned Visteon, ACH and Ford workers and retirees demand that Visteon and Ford meet the demands of the Irish and British Visteon workers of Unite and other unions who are occupying their plants.

This action recalls the best of U.S. workers’ history, from the Flint sit-downs that gave birth to the UAW, to the UE members at Republic Windows and Doors who occupied their plant and won their demands a few months ago in Chicago.

Ford has followed a strategy of the spinning off its facilities into Visteon, and then the further selling or spinning off of even those facilities. However, all the workers involved still have common interests. Loss of pay and benefits in any part of the Ford Empire threatens every worker in it. This is clear from concessions by union members employed directly by Ford, as well as the negotiations over the fate of bankrupt Rouge Steel’s retiree pensions and other benefits.

Ford retains overall responsibilities to all these workers. Ford must do its part in meeting the just demands of the Visteon and ACH workers, Rouge Steel retirees, Severstal workers, and the workers of Ford’s and Visteon’s other spinoffs, as well as the demands of direct Ford employees retirees.

We have the Visteon workers in Ireland and Britain to thank for showing us that some workers are putting their working lives on the line to demand justice from Ford and its spinoffs.

[Signed by five former office holders from Detroit area Visteon and Ford UAW Locals]