Monday May 23, 2022
| Last update: Sunday at 10:13 PM
Interview with Billy Robinson:

Auto Workers and the Big 3 Negotiations

by staff |
July 1, 2003
Read more articles in

The United Auto Workers (UAW) will sit down in August to negotiate a new contract with the Big Three automakers - General Motors, Ford and DaimlerChrysler. Many union activists expect the negotiations to be characterized by concessions to management. Detroit launched an assault on autoworkers years ago, and it continues. For example, GM slashed some 120,000 jobs in the 1990s.

The big auto corporations used to have in-house production of parts. Now, they rely heavily on independent companies. Many of these 'independent parts suppliers' (IPS) companies are, in fact, former divisions of the auto corporations. The workers there make lower wages and have fewer benefits. There are more UAW members in these auto parts companies than in the Big Three.

A lot of workers feel that the UAW officials haven't put up much of a fight in either auto or auto parts. One critical voice in the UAW is Billy Robinson. Robinson is past president of UAW Local 2036 at the Henderson, Kentucky Accuride plant. The local was locked out in 1998. The company wanted to reduce the workforce from over 400 to only 100 employees. They intended to raise healthcare costs and weaken retirement benefits. Finally, they demanded changes in contract language that would have made the union powerless on the shop floor: the grievance procedure would have been changed to eliminate the role of the union representative. When the workers refused, they were locked out.

Fight Back! spoke with Billy Robinson about the upcoming UAW negotiations.

Fight Back!: First of all, who is Accuride and what is the history of your local?

Billy Robinson
: Accuride is the largest producer of steel wheels used on big trucks. When they locked us out in 1998, they were out to break us down. The company lawyer said, "You can call yourselves the auto workers union if you want, as long as you don't do it on company property."

We voted down their contract offer and were out on the picket line for a year. The UAW wanted us to roll over and go back to work. When we refused, we were called renegades. Our strike benefits were taken away for 14 months. We built a campaign of solidarity across the country from rank-and-file workers and forced the UAW to reinstate our benefits. We fought for another year, and then the UAW decertified us.
Fight Back!: What is your opinion of the UAW leadership?

Billy Robinson: They offered us token support, but not solidarity among all autoworkers. That's because the union officials are corrupt. Their pockets keep getting fatter, while union members are hitting the bread lines. Accuride provides the wheels for Navistar. If the union had said to Navistar, "you're accepting scab wheels, that has to stop," we'd have been able to force Accuride back. But the union officials don't want to affect the corporations' ability to make a profit. We can have no impact.

Fight Back!: What do you expect in the UAW negotiations coming up with the Big Three? Will they be characterized by trading jobs for retirement benefits?

Billy Robinson
: The collective bargaining starts in August in Chicago, I believe with GM. The companies will demand and the union will give them the ability to close more plants. Large companies want a situation where they don't have all of their eggs in one basket. They don't want plants with 15,000 to 20,000 employees. Smaller plants make it easier to whipsaw [whipsawing is when workers within a company compete with each other to perform work cheaper].

The UAW has stated that they have given up fighting plant closings. The executives will give management the right to close or spin off a plant without action being taken by workers at other units.

There is a long history of this. [UAW President] Frazier in the early 80's adopted 'joint language' with the Big Three that barred the UAW from interfering on the shop floor. The union can't tell the rank and file to be involved in labor disputes at other units.

The union will make retirement benefits a priority. Any time retirement benefits are mentioned, however, it needs to be understood as part of a larger movement. Defending retirement benefits doesn't mean defending the company's profits. Remember, the autoworkers don't have defined pension plans. The pension plan is primarily in stocks and bonds. Your pension can go up, down or away.

Fight Back!: What will these negotiations mean for workers in the auto parts industry?

Billy Robinson: The UAW will allow the Big Three more ability to spin off parts of the industry, like Delphi. They'll allow more two and three-tiered wage scales. These two-tier wage scales break down solidarity.

Fight Back!: What should auto workers demand out of these negotiations?

Billy Robinson
: Our rallying cry should include that everyone should have the same benefits. There should be one contract that covers everybody. Don't give up any more union benefits. No two-tiered wage scales.

Fight Back!: What's next in your struggle to turn the UAW into a union that's true to the working class?

Billy Robinson
: I've formed a group called LAWS - Labor Advocates for Workers' Solutions, issues and communications. We hope to bring together all those forces that are working to reform the UAW. The network of solidarity activists in the union were instrumental in getting the UAW to restore our benefits during the lockout at Accuride. We need to be unified to hold our leaders accountable.