Not Without A Fight:
Rank & File Meet To Beat Delphi & UAW
By Melodee Hagensen
The common sentiment that Delphi is broke because of “greedy” UAW workers could not be further from the truth. Just as GM pulled factories out of the U.S. during a period of record profits, Delphi used the eleven U.S.-based plants that are in a separate holding group of financially troubled plants to file for bankruptcy in mid October. This position allowed them to threaten to slash the wages of its U.S.-based hourly production workers from $27 to between $10 and $12.50 an hour.
In the meantime, Delphi holds 34 other U.S. plants and two thirds of its labor force worldwide, none of which are in the financially troubled group. In addition, Delphi is holding $1.6 billion in cash and a credit line for as much as $4.5 billion in low-interest debt from Citigroup Global Markets Inc. and JP Morgan Chase, according to The Nation magazine.
Once again, the challenge to the UAW is not its greedy union workers, but corporations seeking to globalize their labor force in order to maximize profits. However, the loss of wages would have a ripple effect in the economy of the Midwest, as the workers would no longer have that $2 billion to funnel back into their local economies.
Growing refusal by corporations like Delphi and GM to supply healthcare to workers will also have profound effects on the greater community. Workers in the U.S. make larger demands on corporations than workers in other industrialized nations because the U.S. is the only industrialized nation in the world that does not have a national health care system. Only the U.S. coerces workers to seek health care coverage primarily from employers. This unusual health care model raises the cost of U.S. labor, and encourages corporations to seek labor in other countries. This leaves employed workers at risk as corporations drop health coverage to raise profit margins.
According to a new survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Health Research and Educational Trust, the percentage of businesses offering health insurance to their workers has fallen to 60 percent, down from 66 percent in 2003 and 69 percent in 2000.
Pensions have also come under attack from corporations who use activist judges to shift company pension obligations to the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, a quasi-federal entity that pays company pensions with U.S. taxpayers’ dollars. Courts have shifted the pension obligations of Bethlehem Steel and United Airlines to taxpayer pockets, and Delphi is awaiting a similar court ruling.
This recent corporate trend of using corporate bankruptcy law to bust unions has spread quickly, beginning with the steel industry in 2002 and 2003, then to the airlines, and now, the automotive industry. Robert “Steve” Miller has been involved in all three industries during the slashing of worker wages, benefits, and pensions. Miller was CEO of Bethlehem Steel, a board member at United Airlines, and is now Chief Executive Officer at Delphi. He has led the company to another activist judge, and is preparing to once again cut hard-won worker wages, benefits, and jobs.
United Auto Workers are well aware of the threat posed to U.S. living standards by Delphi’s strategy and GM’s threat to open the UAW contract to further healthcare concessions. Gregg Shotwell, a member of UAW Local 2151 at the Delphi plant in Coopersville MI, is concerned that if the UAW accepts concession agreements, other auto companies will follow their lead. “It is going to be Ford, it is going to be Chrysler, it is going to be everybody else down the line.”
From the beginning of the auto industry, factory workers have been the canaries in the mine for measuring the health of the workers in the U.S. Auto workers pioneered the middle class wages and benefits through tactics such as the sit-down strike, and union contracts in the 50s and 60s set the standard that raised wages for all other industries.
In the last few decades, UAW leadership has been faced with the challenge of securing jobs in the U.S. while politicians, economists, and corporations have been chanting the virtues of free trade. Autoworkers in the U.S. must now compete with workers in China, for example, where the average hourly wage of a GM worker is $3 per day.
In order to keep jobs in the U.S. over the last few decades, the UAW leadership has favored “jointness,” a philosophy of labor-management cooperation and union givebacks. The Iron Rule of Oligarchy has taken its toll on the UAW, whose leadership has become less concerned with securing the wages and benefits of its workers than with protecting the UAW as a bureaucracy.
All of this is much to the behest of UAW members. The UAW has a history of rank and file movements against union leadership that dates back to the 60s, when a group called Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement confronted union leadership over their racial discrimination and acceptance of company speedups. In the 80s, the New Directions Movement developed out of UAW Region 5, called for a return to basic union philosophies and leadership accountability. Recently, the UAW Solidarity Coalition developed and gained membership through Local 2036’s struggle to vote down a substandard contract backed by UAW leadership.
Once again, some amongst the rank and file are disillusioned with UAW International president Ronald Gettelfinger’s big talk, but bigger concessions. In October, the UAW announced a $1 billion healthcare giveback to GM, while blocking objections from their own UAW retirees. UAW leadership is currently bargaining with Delphi.
This month, the UAW rank and file began preparing themselves for a fight to save not only their wages and benefits, but the nation’s social fabric.
UAW rank-and-file members have held two meetings not sanctioned by the UAW, and are planning many more. On Sunday, November 6, nearly a hundred UAW members gathered at Local 1231 in Comstock Park MI for the first strategizing meeting among the rank and file. Organized by Gregg Shotwell, the meeting attracted UAW workers from Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Ohio, New York, and across Michigan.
A second meeting held in Kokomo IN on November 13 drew roughly another hundred workers from Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, Alabama, Massachusetts, Kentucky, and Wisconsin. In addition to Delphi and GM, the workers also represented UAW members at Caterpillar, American Axle, Ford, Visteon, DaimlerChrysler, and Mitsubishi.
Both meetings were closed to corporate media. The Uncommon Sense and the Socialist Worker were the only media outlets welcomed inside the meetings. A few members were hostile to the idea of having any presses present, demanding that non-UAW members leave. The majority, though, agreed in a show of hands that it was important that the messages of the meeting be relayed through alternative presses.
“It’s really important that we get this message out to Delphi workers in Flint. There is going to be a battle in Flint,” argued Shotwell.
“There are things that I would like to do to Steve Miller that are expressly forbidden by the Geneva Conventions, but that the average butcher does on a daily basis,” Shotwell told the crowded room of riled workers at the first meeting. Shotwell warned that though rousing topics, such as the possibilities of strike, working to rule, and the proposed concessions, would be addressed, the discussion should remain “appropriate.”
“Our intent is to determine the most effective and rational method to resist concessions and to save our jobs. We only want to engage in protected, concerted activities, not individual acts,” said Shotwell.
Shotwell reassured the members that the meetings, which have served as venue for furious workers to safely blow off steam, are not a threat to the UAW. “We are not here to try to reform the UAW, file a lawsuit, or initiate a desertification campaign, or anything else that would take 100 years, a battalion of attorneys, a boxcar full of shotguns, and a truck full of unmarked denominations. But we do want to kick Steve Miller’s ass all the way back to Oregon.”
In an interview with The Uncommon Sense, Shotwell explained that meeting organizers intentionally avoided imposing a platform in order to nurture grassroots movement. The meetings have also not been identified with preexisting union caucuses.
Shotwell believes that the meetings will enhance the goals of UAW leadership. “By the first meeting, Gettelfinger and Shoemaker had already endorsed work to rule. They had stated at a meeting in Detroit on November 2 that we were on a collision course. They stated that Mr. Miller appears not to be willing to negotiate. We didn’t make up work to rule in preparation for a strike. That had already been endorsed by the International Union,” said Shotwell. Union spokesmen have confirmed that Gettelfinger endorsed the work to rule campaign, calling for workers to do nothing more than what is explicitly called for in their contract.
“We are educating people on how that works and what is safe and what is legal. The International has its purpose at the bargaining table, but we also have a purpose at the shop floor. We can effect the company more than the International union can. The International can call a strike in the next six months, but we can put economic hardship on Delphi and GM right now,” said Shotwell.
Organizers opened the floor of the meetings to the direction of the rank and file members. Angry workers quickly turned to preparations for strike.
“We have to agitate for an industry-wide strike. The news of the Delphi concessions plan and hatchet-man Miller’s plan is a shock heard around the world, especially in the auto industry. It’s galvanized people, it’s electrified people. If there is going to be a strike, it’s going to be a strike not just against the corporation, but against the policy of our failed leadership and the concession strategy,” said a Toledo Jeep worker whose plant had agitated for a strike by staging “band practice” in which they would bang their tools at set times.
Randy Peterson of Local 167 was concerned that striking at plants that Delphi plans to close would play right into Miller’s hand, as Miller could then lock out the workers and close the plant. He argued that only plants that are strong GM suppliers should be targeted for a strike.
One Ford worker argued that if Delphi workers were to strike, workers in his plant would understand and support them. “If they strike, we need to get everybody we can down to Solidarity House, demanding that the International leadership spread the strike industry wide. If they strike saying that it is for healthcare, we need to say that we are on strike also for healthcare for everyone.”
Work-to-rule was the general theme of both meetings. Work to rule is an old strategy to prepare for a strike. It allows workers to continue to earn wages and build solidarity while acting collectively against the corporation’s production and controlling of the shop floor. It is not an unprotected union activity such as sabotage or slowdown. Rather, it requires workers to work “by the book” to restrict output or undermine quality through coordinated tactics that are not forbidden by the contract’s rules. By lowering inventories and raising company costs, work to rule campaigns give workers leverage to win once strikes have begun.
“One of the best ways to create solidarity in the workforce is through working to rule. You are working very safely and you are slowing down. That brings solidarity within your work force. That puts economic pressure on the corporation. And the last thing you need to do is to go out on strike, but you have to condition your members,” argued Dean Braid, of UAW Local 599.
George Cornwell of UAW Local 974 in Peoria IL assured people that work to rule was especially effective on the continuous production line. “If Gregg forgets to put his washer on, I have got to go tell Gregg he missed his washer. Now, can you stop the line? No. But the engine has got to slow down, from 350 a day to 300 a day,” Cornwell said of line output.
Warren Davis, former Region 2 Director, from Cleveland OH argued at the Kokomo meeting that Gettelfinger should train the union’s servicing representatives and have them teach local union representatives how to implement the work to rule strategy. “You want to beat them, and that is how you beat them. There is a structure in place to beat them, and it’s the regions, and it’s the national departments. A lot of those guys need to go to work anyway.”
Davis explained what he learned in his 19 years as an autoworker. “There are two ways to do a job. The right way. And the boss’ way. What work to rule calls for is doing the job the boss’ way.”
Davis called for workers to find out if their regional directors truly believe in and back the work to rule stratagem.
Delphi has stated that if the union does not agree to wage and benefit cuts, Delphi will ask the bankruptcy court to allow it to sever contracts with hourly workers.
Cornwell, who worked at Caterpillar through the strikes of the 1990s, was invited to speak to concerns of working without a contract. He explained that when Caterpillar was working without a contract, the people who did go on strike had better health care coverage than was supplied by Caterpillar to those still working.
However, Cornwell warned that working without a contract had “devastating effects,” and urged the rank and file to seek community support.
Both meetings addressed the need to reach out to all union and non-union people who are concerned about corporate disregard for working families. Gaining the community’s support is crucial to the success of union strikes. For example, businesses can give discounts to striking workers, easing their economic hardship during their fight to keep money in the local economy. It also functions to support workers psychologically, as it demonstrates to workers that the community is aware that their success will benefit other industries and the service sector.
Cornwell encouraged UAW activists to have businesses hang “1-800-UAW” signs in their windows to attract UAW business. He also suggested putting similar stickers on checks paid to phone and energy companies, which cause the checks to get stuck in the companies’ processing machines. When the companies complain, the union is in a position to offer to remove the stickers in exchange for the company’s support.
“Put your minds in gear and you can have a lot of fun,” said Cornwell, who has preached alongside ministers in favor of the UAW in churches in his community in order to gain support.
Many workers stressed the need to seek support from other unions, including the Teamsters and the AFL-CIO. Two days after the Comstock Park meeting, AFL-CIO president John Sweeny issued a statement admonishing Delphi and allying the AFL-CIO with the struggle. “The AFL-CIO stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the Delphi workers and their unions. Not only can they count on the 5.5 million active and retired members of the six unions that formed the Mobilizing@Delphi coalition, they can count on the support of the entire 9 million member AFL-CIO,” assured Sweeny.
UAW members at the meetings felt strongly about the risk of continuing to accept concessions. Flint has felt the devastating effects of accepting concessions, only to have companies continue to close plants. “We want to vote no on the concessions, on any concessions. We do not need to feed the alligator. It will only make the alligator come back for a bigger body part,” Diane Feely warned members at the first meeting.
Meeting organizers are planning several more gatherings, beginning in Flint on December 11 at the Ramada Inn. Meetings are also being planned for Milwaukee and New York. Meetings will be open to all UAW members who wish to join the fight.
Warren Davis told aggravated workers, “You are truly, whether you know it or not, fighting for every worker, not just in the United States, but every worker all over the world.”
—The Uncommon Sense, December 7, 2005