My Impressions of a Report Presented by SOS Leaders
By Earl Silbar
I went to a meeting with two Delphi activists in Chicago on Friday, the 13th, and here’s a report plus comments. While I took some notes, this report is not at all complete, and I encourage others present there or at other such meetings to add your recollections and thoughts along with comments by others as well.
The ISO (International Socialist Organization) called this meeting that featured two Midwest Delphi worker-activists, Todd Donovan and Gregg Shotwell. This report is on their comments and my thoughts.
Delphi is GM’s major parts supplier in the U.S. and was a part of GM until some years ago when GM “spun it off” into a nominally independent company. Late last year, Delphi declared bankruptcy, demanded huge pay cuts, cuts in pensions, increased health-care payments, and speed-up on the job. In response, some Delphi workers have held rank-and-file meetings outside the UAW’s official structures across the Midwest for workers to discuss this threat. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, have attended. Gregg and Todd have been very active in this effort.
Todd spoke first. He’s very soft-spoken, in his late 20s, married with kids, and from Indiana. What follows for each is a very partial and limited reconstruction, based on a few notes and memory, not a recording. (For his views, go to his website: www.thefutureoftheunion.org.)
What we have is two opposing classes, and what the union gives us is class collaboration. What we have are businessmen masquerading as union leaders. They are traitors to the working class, not union leaders.
Autoworkers are faced with company competition and demands for speedup and cuts. The UAW preaches economic nationalism. They pit American against Japanese and other foreign workers. We need international unity, not national chauvinism and racist divisions.
We are in the final stages of capitalism, and I fear for our children. I fear for my fellow workers—for our future. That’s why I fight. No concessions! (Standing applause).
Gregg Shotwell is an older, more experienced Delphi worker, also married with children who lives and works in Michigan. His talk was longer and here I only catch bits and pieces. (For more by Gregg, go to his website: www.freshbaitnammo.org. For more about the new grouping of activists emerging from this resistance, go to: www.soldiersofsolidarity.org.
Delphi is GM; it’s not a separate company in reality. This attack by Delphi is the first stage in a war on autoworkers. Delphi is structured by GM to produce bankruptcy, with built-in high costs and low prices. This is a phony, planned, bankruptcy. This is mismanagement and fraud by GM and Delphi. Take just this one example: GM wrote an indemnity clause in their spinoff of Delphi—in case of Delphi’s bankruptcy, GM gets all the production machinery but none of the commitments for health care and pensions for our retired workers. Doesn’t that sound like a setup by GM?
The best way to fight this concessionary attack is by “work to rule.” work to rule does not sabotage or slow down the workplace. Workers simply do what they’re supposed to, without contributing anything above and beyond. Management has to take up the slack where we used to put out extra effort.
Some say we should strike, but I ask, “Do you want to go on strike in this weather?” work to rule lets us go to work, do our jobs, and we come home with our paycheck for our family. Workers have power at the point of production. This way, we exercise our power and send them a message.
This is a practical solution to an urgent need. You start in your own department, then spread to your shift and more. People in my town know each other. I see someone, and I ask, “Paul, how’s your dad doin’?” when I know his dad’s fighting cancer. We talk. This way we can spread our work outside our own workplace, our own shift.
Some say we need leaders, but we don’t need more leaders. They can buy off leaders. We need the rank and file to take the lead. At our meetings, I don’t give lectures, talks. I ask the workers what they think. You have to respect them and their intelligence. You can’t come in and try to sell them some plan, some product of yours. You have to start where the workers are. They know how to shut it down. No concessions! (standing applause)
Some thoughts of mine:
Todd is very clear and strong on what workers, especially UAW workers, can expect from the union leadership and the need for wider unity in the class. Gregg is very well-informed on Delphi and GM’s financial and organizational structure. See his website for his extraordinary grasp. He clearly has years of union experience that inform his ideas. The idea that “we don’t need leaders” is worthy of thought and discussion, and I write to hopefully contribute to that discussion:
First, there’s good reason for healthy suspicion of self-proclaimed leaders. Since we live in a capitalist society where hype, hustle, and spin are everywhere, we naturally distrust anything sold to us, especially leaders. Since most unions, including the UAW, are run by groups acting as corporate junior partners, it’s healthy to distrust such leaders who put up a good front while selling us out. (Certainly that’s our Local’s experience with AFSCME.) And since the socialist/communist left has also produced many figures also falsely presented as “saviors of the working class,” that’s yet more reason to distrust leaders. Not to speak about preachers who say “Lord, Lord” while lining their pockets, mistreating kids, exploiting women, etc. etc. Hypocrisy abounds.
Gregg’s emphasis on “everyone is a leader” is both healthy and may also be limiting. Healthy because everyone, being different, has different contributions to make. In fact, any common effort only grows stronger and more powerful when more people come forward. That’s rank and file leadership and it’s good. Crucial. Critical. Necessary. When, for example, we worked to prepare to strike for living wages and benefits for GED, ESL and literacy teachers in City Colleges of Chicago back in 2002-03, our leadership team worked hard to find, encourage, help and support those who were “up for the fight.” We grew the struggle; we provided leadership. Like it or not, that’s necessary too.
Leadership makes decisions. Their decisions help shape the struggle. Right or wrong, we require leadership to develop resistance. In fact, Gregg is part of that leadership; he and others travel and write to encourage others to come forward. That’s leadership. He explains and argues for his idea—work to rule. That’s leadership. He’s not waiting for someone else to deliver Delphi workers. He puts a plan, time and effort out there. He explains. Others like it. They adopt it. That idea now is part of a new reality. More workers feel their strength. Hope grows. Energy grows. Imagination can take wings. Power grows. That’s good leadership, and we need more of it, not less.
Not everyone is on the same page; some are tied to the status quo; some actively or passively oppose resistance. Some are bribed. Some are too bitter towards fellow workers or cynical. Others are simply defeated by the years of hardship and mistreatment; their spirits are broken. That will be true of some Delphi workers, just as with every group under attack, now and before. Some want change, others don’t. The idea “no leaders—the rank and file will lead” seems to ignore this.
Leader-activists have to evaluate the situation, including the different players and their ideas. They put their heads together to figure out the best approach to each group and individual. How to answer management and politicians and union leaders’ line of argument. Good leaders learn to do this. They model this for the newbies. They walk the walk. They inspire others.
Like it or not, we have leaders in everything. When you get together with friends, family or workmates, some people take the lead, with a suggestion, with a phone call to confirm. Think picnic or party. Someone has to take the lead or it doesn’t happen.
The wider group of activist-leaders out of these last months of Delphi meetings call themselves the Soldiers of Solidarity (SOS). I think that’s brilliant. They’re self-organized. They’re open, but not to everyone. It can be a step towards developing a group of fighters, a self-selected organization. One that brings together like-minded folks. People who understand the need for us creating working class power to fight the class war that’s more a route than resistance, so far.
They are, in fact, the vanguard, the leadership group of this struggle with potential to move beyond. The same thing happens in any movement of resistance and struggles for liberation from oppression. In the ’30s, it was mostly the communist and socialist organizations that provided the hard core, the experienced cadres. The Civil Rights movement of the ’50s and ’60s got much leadership from local networks and organizations of the hard core, like the NAACP that fought the Klan in North Carolina, the SNCC field workers in Mississippi, the Deacons for Defense and Justice, etc.
Most, not all, were working class. Some, like Dr. King, were more elite. Others middle class. It’s a fact of life: some come forward to lead, some later, some never, and some sabotage the fight. We need a concept of leadership that encompasses this reality.
For me, this all shows that we must have organizations of emerging leadership in this immediate resistance to Delphi’s cuts and in the wider struggle to resist, bring down, and replace the capitalist system. After all, this system must and does continually attack the vast majority of humanity while destroying the ecosystems that we arise from and live in. And, as Gregg and Todd both pointed out, it’s the working class that has our hands on production—from the factory floor to the hospital and classroom.
This emerging movement shows again that we, as workers, have a special power to resist and to replace the corporate exploiters. Work to rule, as practiced by the heroic Staley workers in Decatur, IL in the 90s illustrated some of that power. The Delphi workers might show this again now.
There’s a living link between what we need for effective, class-based resistance and the world we can create. In both, we decide how to fight, how to use our common resources. The same is true of socialism: working class power to decide what should be made, how, and with what resources. In both, we fight for the common good and against the profit and power of the capitalist few and wannabes. For a here-and-now and a future where everyone has good food, water, shelter, access to education, health care, and their own creativity.
Only such a healthy workers movement with such leadership organizations can lead a defense against corporate attacks and towards such a socialist society. In this way, we ourselves help create the possibility of a world based on solidarity and respect, where all can develop our human potential to the max and contribute to all.
Earl Silbar is a GED instructor and member of AFSCME 3506.