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New Directions Leader Speaks Out On Lessons of GM Strike

Interview with Wendy Thompson, a leader in the New Directions Movement

Rank and File Leads United Auto Workers to Victory
by staff |
October 1, 1998
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Less than one year after the Teamsters struck UPS, another giant strike has shaken U.S. capitalism. With 180,000 workers, the battle at GM was the biggest strike in 20 years. More than 190,000 more workers were idled when two parts plants in Flint, Michigan, struck for 54 days and won, the first major auto strike since 1970. These strikes show the worker's movement continues to build in strength. Workers are on the move again!

Fight Back! interviewed Wendy Thompson, an activist in the New Directions movement in the UAW. She works at American Axle, a company that used to be part of General Motors, but that was sold off. She was the shop chair there, the top union officer in the plant.

Fight Back!: How did the nationwide GM strike start in Flint, Michigan?

Wendy Thompson: After many years of concessions, outsourcing, and downsizing, finally you had a group of workers who said they had enough. They decided to draw a line in the sand.

The corporation had made an agreement in writing for a large investment in the plants in Flint, and then reneged on it. If they don't invest in your plant, you know your plant is slated for closing.

The incident that caused the strike was the removal of dies on some machinery in the plant. The international union had been told by the corporation that they were going to remove these dies. But when it happened, the anger of the rank and file workers was so enormous, it forced the international to go along with the strike.

Fight Back!: What was the role of the national leadership of the UAW?

Thompson: No local union can go out on strike, even after the membership has voted to do so, without the international giving the OK. The international did so after seeing the anger from the ranks.

Fight Back!: Most of the workers that stopped work during this strike were 'downstream' from Flint. That is, their factories were closed because strikers in Flint stopped making parts for them. How did the workers 'downstream' react?

Thompson: The new system, called 'just in time,' means that workers that make parts only make them just before they are to go on the assembly line. They are not storing any parts anywhere in the system. They've closed a lot of warehouses, eliminated a lot of jobs, and saved a lot of money with this system. But, it makes the company very vulnerable to the workers. A parts plant, like the metal fab plant in Flint, can shut down the system almost immediately. They have built a system that depends on the workers going along. Now, that's not happening.

The other workers were very supportive because everybody has been facing the same thing - concessions, outsourcing, speed up in the plant.

Fight Back!: What do you think should be the lessons that unionists learn from this strike?

Thompson: The most important thing about this strike is it showed how much power workers have. Auto workers for years have been thinking, 'We don't really have the ability to change the situation of concessions and job loss.' Now that is changing to where people think, 'Maybe we can accomplish something.'

GM was also saying, 'We will not let workers have any say in our investment decisions.' And yet they agreed to a settlement in the strike that brought the dies back to the first plant. That got them to agree to the investment they had previously agreed on, and, at least for a while, take the one plant off the market. This is something that never happened when my plant was put on the market. The union just totally went along with it. A lot of people were upset with it at that time.

Finally, in the 1970s you had 75% of parts plants organized into the union, whereas today you have only 12%. What has caused that change? Outsourcing or plant closings. They'll sell a plant in one place and then they'll open it down South in a non-union environment, or in Mexico. Unless the plants in the South are organized into the union, we're going to continue to have a problem. That is a part of the solution. Organize the plants where the work moved to. Bring those workers into the union, bring their wages up to the level of the Big 3, and then there's no motivation for them to continue to move the work. [Similarly], we have to throw our support, including resources, to organize the plants in Mexico.

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