Two recent images of the labor movement in this time of crisis stand out for their stark contrast.
One is a photograph of UAW President Ron Gettlefinger sitting at the witness table before a Congressional committee with the heads of the Big 3 auto makers, pleading for help. The other is a photo of jubilant workers celebrating their victory after a six day sit-in at the Republic Windows and Doors factory in Chicago.
It is not stretching things to say that these images crystallize the problems and possibilities of organized labor today.
Gettlefinger’s testimony was a sad coda to an era in US industrial relations that actually ended in September 2007 when the UAW reached a concession packed agreement with GM following a two day strike, and similar agreements later that year with the other auto makers. The agreements froze wages for production workers; reclassified and placed “non-production” workers on a lower wage scale; and set a new hire rate at about $14.00 an hour—about half what incumbent workers earn—with inferior benefits. A buyout program was designed to push as many senior workers out the door as possible to make room for the new hires. The union promoted the contract as a way to buy time for the companies to reorganize and retool.
Nothing much happened. The restructuring took the form of plant closures. The retooling remained a promise by the Big 3 to produce more energy efficient cars. But all the while the companies kept up their incessant advertisements for SUVs, pick-ups, and other gas guzzlers. And they continued to pursue their lobbying and lawsuits against tougher mileage standards. The spike in gas prices and the credit crunch provided the coup de grace to a dying industry.
In October 2007, we asked on this blog, whether the UAW could turn its collective bargaining defeat into a strategic retreat by regrouping and developing an independent survival plan for the industry? Now we know the answer: they could not. Tragically, the UAW kept marching in lock step with the very companies that were destroying the US industry. The union even supported the companies’ opposition to tougher mileage standards because, they argued, it would unfairly hurt sales of light trucks and SUVs and imperil many jobs.
Had the union taken an independent course things might now be different. They might have been able to mobilize popular opinion behind a plan to produce greener cars and new vehicles for public transportation, preserving the jobs and the economies of the communities that depend on them. Instead, there is no plan to rally around, only a demoralized plea for a bailout.