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The United Auto Workers

Sellouts vs. Rank and File Militancy

by Mike Griffin |
May 1, 2006
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Autoworkers with banner: "Good Jobs for All. Solidarity Now"
UAW members picket at Detroit autoshow. Attacks on auto workers, if successful, will impact wages in many industries. (Futureoftheunion.com)

Decatur, IL - Nowhere in organized labor is the failure and treachery of business unionism more indicting than in the United Auto Workers (UAW). Today, that treachery threatens not only the existence of the organization, but the fundamental values upon which the union was built. If there exists a saving grace for the UAW, it is not in the halls of Solidarity House [UAW headquarters in Detroit], but in the rank and file resurgence against the devastating concessions at Delphi and Visteon, parts suppliers to the auto industry. The massive job losses and concessions, including tiered wages and benefits, are not a new occurrence, but a carefully crafted course that involves not only the bastards of the boardroom, but top UAW leadership as well.

Looking back at the UAW and its transformation from a fighting union to one of compliance, partnership and ‘jointism’ with the employing class we find a sorry record.

Doug Frazier became UAW president in 1977. He joined Chrysler’s board of directors and defined the path of destruction the UAW would follow. But no UAW leadership team could equal the incompetence of Frazier’s successor, Owen Beiber, who took over in 1983. Rather than fight for UAW members, he immersed the UAW in jointism - labor/management cooperation schemes that signaled to the auto corporations that the UAW was an easy mark. Under Beiber, the policy concessions, now so vivid in the Delphi debacle, took root in the agriculture and implement division of the UAW at Caterpillar Tractor and John Deere.

In 1992, the UAW struck CAT only to voluntarily return months later. Tiered wages, erosion of benefits for retirees, health care cost-shifting and attacks on the parts division were at the center of the dispute. The struggle continued more than six years while UAW members worked under imposed conditions. During the dispute, UAW President Beiber retired, passing the briefcase to Stephen Yokich. Caterpillar amassed a record 450-plus labor violations, many of which involved 250 illegally terminated employees - bargaining chips for a ruthless corporation. So confident was Don Fites, CAT CEO, that he could cut a deal, he openly boasted the company would be vindicated of all charges. How could he have known this unless he was receiving assurances from UAW leadership? During the length of the dispute, it was clear the UAW had no winning strategy and was doing nothing to secure a victory.

In 1995, at the AFL-CIO convention in New York, President Yokich stood before Decatur, Illinois unionists, including UAW local leaders from CAT announcing, “I will not hold up a contract for thousands of UAW members for a few hundred discharges.” Most of those discharged had done nothing wrong, but Yokich was willing to sell them out, angering Decatur unionists.

At CAT, Yokich forced a vote on a sellout contract several times, but a savvy rank and file rejected it - insisting discharged members be returned to work. The Decatur local, under the leadership of Larry Solomon, was key in rejecting attempts to settle without justice for the discharged members. The largest local, 974 in Peoria, Illinois, voted in favor, after the former local president, Jerry Brown, who vowed never to accept it, was given an international union job and returned to sell the contract.

Perhaps the defining element in the Caterpillar battle was the treatment of the parts division. Thousands of jobs were lost; benefits were cut and most alarming, tiered were wages so low UAW members were eligible for food stamps. The distribution center in York, Pennsylvania was mostly moved to a new nonunion facility in North Carolina. So horrible was the sellout, the local president in Denver, Colorado, Joe Vasquez, committed suicide when his members voted to accept it. During the dispute at CAT, the John Deere contract was settled under similar conditions without so much as a whimper from the UAW.

Both contracts were negotiated under the direction of Richard Shoemaker, who headed the agriculture-implement division of the UAW. Both contracts gave a glimpse of the future for the parts divisions in the auto industry and showed where UAW leadership stood on the issues and who they were standing with.

In 1998 another struggle took shape in Henderson, Kentucky, involving UAW Local 2036 and Accuride Wheel, a parts supplier. After a short strike and return to work, Accuride locked out the 650 members of Local 2036. Accuride demanded a contract no union could agree to, except of course, the UAW.

After more than a year of paying strike benefits, the UAW told Accuride (a week before they told Local 2036 leaders) that they were ending strike benefits to local members. Maintaining wages and benefits at this parts supplier would go against the concessions at CAT, John Deere and where the auto industry was headed.

Local activists and supporters from across America organized a picket of the UAW headquarters in Detroit. Yokich responded to the embarrassment by restoring benefits at double the rate, but only for several months. Less than a year later, Yokich decertified the local and handed the jobs of 650 loyal UAW members over to scabs forever. Many of those members, including local President Billy Robinson, had helped build the 22-year-old local from the ground up. The UAW Regional Director who vowed to stay with the local, “for as long as it takes,” was none other than Ron Gettlefinger, current UAW International President.

This past year, Gettlefinger negotiated a poverty-level contract at a parts supplier in Indiana that allowed some members to move to another facility and maintain current wages and benefits, but denied those members the right to vote on the contract. In spite of the UAW constitution, Gettlefinger has played a major role in forcing UAW members to work under conditions that place them at the poverty level. A rank and file resurgence is now threatening his poor leadership and his credibility with the executives in the big three. Gettlefinger’s occasional militant speech now rings hollow with UAW members - and it should. His history is one of defeat, maybe even betrayal, and the gruff persona he portrays, hypocritical. One is reminded more of the blowhard caricature, Yosemite Sam, than Walter Ruether.

The growing rank and file movement in the UAW has its work cut out. The auto corporations are out for blood. It’s time UAW members take things in their own hands.

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