The Economic Crisis and the Auto Industry

Interview with rank-and-file leader Gregg Shotwell

Fight Back!interviewed Gregg Shotwell, a worker from the Delphi auto parts plant in Coopersville, Michigan, and a founder of Soldiers of Solidarity, an organization of rank-and-file members of the United Auto Workers (UAW). This interview deals with a number of critical issues, including the role of the UAW leadership and the need for a united resistance on the part rank and file workers.

Fight Back!: For months we’ve heard about the economic and financial crisis and how it’s playing out in the auto industry. The corporate media doesn’t report on what it means for workers.

Gregg Shotwell: I’m retired since November 2008 but I’m in contact with workers. The peculiar situation now is the average worker has come to realize they are not just fighting the company; they are fighting the union and they are fighting the government. They really feel like everything is stacked up against them.

It’s become increasingly clear that the union has blocked the rank and file out of negotiations. So workers and retirees feel abandoned. They’re up against a three-headed dog: the union, the company and the government.

Most critically, in the last labor agreement that came out with Chrysler, workers didn’t have any information on the contract they were going to vote on until the day they were to vote on it, but they were told this: If you don’t pass this contract, the company will go into bankruptcy and then everything will be in jeopardy. So the workers were voting with a gun to their head.

In the contract, certain plants were guaranteed to stay open. As soon as the contract was ratified, Chrysler went into bankruptcy, and announced additional plant closings. After all the concessions they made, they still didn’t get any security.

But the worst thing, and this is the most important part of what happened in this last set of negotiations, the union agreed that in 2011, when this contract expires, if they can’t settle the next contract, they agree to non-binding arbitration, and compensation would be set at non-union levels.

This is not a contract: this is a death warrant for the union. The union de-certified itself. There’s no longer any benefit to membership. If they agree in advance we will accept non-binding arbitration—this goes along with the no-strike clause. They’ve abrogated voting rights.

This is a moving target. In 2011, Toyota will have ratcheted down their compensation because they only set their level of wages at the union level to keep the union out. That’s no longer a threat to them any more. Now they can go back to workers in their factories that don’t have any union and say to them, “We’re going to have to cut a dollar or two an hour; we’re going to have to cut health care; we’re going to have to stop contributing to your 401k.” So by 2011, the average non-union wage is going to be that much lower than it is now.

So what the union has done is
decertify itself as the bargaining agent for workers.

Fight Back!: Is there an initiative by any force to fight any part of this?

Shotwell: There is a lot of anger out there so there are opportunities. We’re seeing a lot of reactions—a lot of spontaneous activity right now, especially in the Detroit area and in Michigan, where Chrysler workers are demonstrating and picketing, demanding to keep their plants open.

The other part of the fight back is the potential for a broader movement. This crisis isn’t new, it’s just broader. We can go back and look at steel and rubber and textile and electronics and airlines and PATCO and Staley and say, “Y’know, they’ve been picking us off one at a time for years and years.”

But now everybody is impacted and there’s not a safety net for anyone, because if it’s not your pension it’s your 401k, or it’s that your house isn’t worth anything any more; or you’re forced to relocate but you can’t afford to uproot; or you’re losing your job or your pay is being cut; and it doesn’t matter if you’re a knowledge worker or a salaried worker or a laborer, everybody is in this position. Everybody’s angry and threatened and recognizing that these mechanisms and these organizations that were supposed to secure your life, are no longer valid. All the rules have changed. I think there’s a real possibility that we can have a much more united resistance because everyone is under attack, not just one industry or one union., June 2009