The Crisis in the UAW:
It’s Always Darkest Before the Dawn

By the Editors

The tale we have to tell this time is not a pretty one. Although our aim has always been to help restore confidence in the undiminished power of the working class to change the world, we are afraid that the story we are about to tell may not produce the desired effect with some of our readers. But the only way any problem can be solved is by looking at all the relevant facts, whatever they may be, including the hard facts facing the United Auto Workers today.

In the end, however, we remain confident that working people’s power to change the world has not been diminished in the slightest. As has always been the case, the old mole of history zigs and zags its way to a better world.

We don’t have to look very far to find the reasons for the problems facing the UAW and so many other unions. Neither is it difficult to see why this once-mighty force for the betterment of the working class now appears to be nothing like it was in the 1930s when workers last showed their power to change the world. The steady decline of organized labor over the decades that followed is easily explained, and the solutions to the problem can be generally outlined. But it’s much harder to make a convincing case that the union is still the great force it once was.

The whys and hows of the problem before us are fairly obvious: The rank-and-file of the UAW and unions in general are no longer in charge! Instead, a parasitic bureaucratic caste has for all practical purposes freed itself from rank-and-file control. And because such officials no longer have to worry about where the next meal for their kids and other dependents is coming from, they can now see how things look to those who own and control all that’s worth owning.

In other words, because those at the top of the bureaucratic labor hierarchy no longer abide by the union principle of paying union wages to union officials, and no longer live as their dues-paying members do, they have long since begun to think as the owners of capital do. But the millions who spend every minute of every day at their workbenches and assembly lines have learned through bitter experience that their interests are diametrically opposed to those of their employers. They know that to the extent that there is a “partnership” between labor and capital—as UAW and other labor officials are fond of saying—it’s akin to that between slave and slaveowner.

Now to the subject at hand.

Virtually all informed trade-union activists and other interested parties believe that the Big Three U.S. auto corporations will once again emerge from upcoming negotiations for a new labor contract with the UAW with a sizeable reduction in labor costs and significantly higher profits. Most are also aware that another big setback for one of America’s strongest industrial unions will trigger an avalanche of cuts in wages, benefits, hours, and working conditions throughout the organized and unorganized working class.

Rarely has there been a more naked betrayal by union bureaucrats of their dues-paying members than by Gettelfinger’s “Amendment” revising the existing labor contract between the UAW and GM/Delphi. How it came about, and more importantly, exactly how the bureaucracy maintains a virtual dictatorship over the union despite all the formal mechanisms of union democracy still being in place, still must be told and retold.

An integral part of the rotten deal cooked up by top officials of GM/Delphi and the UAW was the employer’s offer of a so-called buyout—a proposal put to each individual employee to trade his or her job for a cash payoff. However, the terms of the deal as presented by the media, made autoworkers look much better off than they really were. the media ballyhooed the tradeoff as a “very generous” buyout that included cash, pensions, healthcare, and other benefits. The media didn’t bother to report to its readers that except for the cash bonus, all the big benefits offered—pensions, healthcare, and the rest—were already guaranteed to all autoworkers in their union contract. Most importantly, they had been financed by deductions from their paychecks. Thus, in every sense, all these benefits had been bought and paid for by the autoworkers themselves.

So what’s so generous about that?

Gregg Shotwell, a 28-year worker at GM/Delphi and one of the most influential leaders of the very promising rank-and-file movement in the UAW that calls itself Soldiers of Solidarity (SOS), summarized the consequences of the amendment:

“There are very few first-tier workers left in the Delphi plants. I don’t know the percentage, but I expect the remaining ones will be compelled to leave.... Second-tier workers have no pension. The company has successfully severed the bond between generations....

“The second-tier workers would only strike if their livelihood was threatened. The shame is that we older workers were more financially secure and mentally prepared to weather a strike and we had more to lose. We were the soldiers on the front lines and could have waged successful industrial action by first waging a work-to-rule campaign that would weaken the company, followed by erratic rolling strikes to further weaken the companies and disrupt production, and finally an industry-wide strike. Too late for that.

“SOS has emphasized equal rights for new hires, equal pay for equal work, and no two-tier, an effort to show solidarity. That’s why we say there is no seniority date for justice and no retirement from solidarity.”

A closer look at the betrayal of both old- and new-hires

The official leaders of what was once one of the world’s most powerful and democratic unions made a deal with their corporate “partners” that replaced collective decision-making with the anti-union policy of every man for himself, a policy dear to all capitalists—the good, the bad and the ugly.

The facts are that GM saw to it that when Delphi was cut loose, the terms of its semi-divorce from its principal parts supplier included an escape clause freeing GM from having to honor its pension obligations to all union members, including those employed by Delphi Corp. That means that should Delphi decide to file for bankruptcy protection from its creditors under Chapter 11 (one of its biggest creditors being the UAW pension fund, which is legally owned and controlled by GM), the company can ask the judge adjudicating their demand for protection to rule on whether or not GM must honor its pension obligations to Delphi’s workers.

In recent years, however, bankruptcy judges have been giving giant corporations anything they want when their creditors are union members and the protection they seek is from workers’ wages, pensions, and other benefits guaranteed by their union contracts. Clearly with this in mind, Delphi initiated bankruptcy proceedings under Chapter 11, but primarily as a threat to bypass the union and let a friendly judge do its dirty work before this year’s bargaining for a new labor contract with the UAW was slated to begin.

However, had the company taken that route, the rank-and-file of the UAW, which was born in the course of one of history’s most dynamic strike victories in 1934, might well have reacted with explosive force—even in its current demoralized and defeatist state of mind. In which case, Gettelfinger would be in no position to defend GM’s attempt to steal his dues-paying members’ pensions.

Seen in this light, it can readily be understood why the employers decided to take the far safer and surer road to their wage-cutting goal by making a deal with Gettelfinger before formal bargaining was scheduled to begin. Compared to the undisguised grand larceny committed by a bankruptcy court, Gettelfinger’s amending of an existing labor contract was designed to look like a fair tradeoff of cash and benefits for jobs.

The mortal threat of a growing number of new-hires permanently receiving less than half the total wage package has union-busting consequences going far beyond Delphi’s workforce. A precedent has been set for extending Gettelfinger’s amended GM/Delphi contract by degrees to the Big Three and beyond. After all, what is there to stop Ford and Chrysler from demanding that all contracts include whatever concessions had been recently made to GM/Delphi, in line with the UAW’s policy of industry-wide or “pattern” bargaining?

The current UAW crisis in light of pattern bargaining

Industry-wide bargaining is historically the most favorable form of bargaining for workers and their international unions, and is a right won long ago by the UAW and other of the stronger industrial unions when their rank-and-file had a whole lot more to say about union policy. Industry-wide bargaining gives the union the option of using the strike weapon to enforce its demands on an industry-wide scale, or one at a time, as the relation of forces between union and employer may dictate.

Employers, of course, also have the same rights. They too can choose to bargain and “strike” against the union all at once or one at a time. (A bosses’ strike, of course, is called a lockout.) And any time it feels it can successfully impose its will on all its workers and their union simply by locking out the existing workforce and hiring others to take its place, they will do so. That’s exactly what happened, on a grand scale, in Venezuela’s oil industry a few years back. Besides, individual lockouts of local unions happen quite often here and elsewhere when the employer believes he can make it stick.

Normally, however, employers are very happy to negotiate one at a time, since it’s always in the employers’ interests to pick off one section of the workers at a time. Such tactics come under the general heading of the capitalist strategy of divide and conquer. But the bosses’ greatest fear is not the matter of an occasional setback that most concerns the employers as a class; rather, it’s the danger that a single important strike victory by one part of the labor movement will inspire others, and ultimately many others, to follow their example.

This is what happened in 1934, when a series of three successful strike victories shocked and inspired the entire American working class that year—the first being a city-wide strike by autoworkers in Toledo, the second by Teamsters in Minneapolis, and the third by longshoremen in San Francisco. It was those three strike victories that set off American history’s greatest ever labor upsurge of the 1930s.1

However, industry-wide bargaining and strikes can be a big advantage to workers and their unions when all the necessary preconditions for success are in place. That of course depends on the union’s having first made a careful evaluation of all factors affecting the outcome and recommending a course of action—whether to strike or not, and whether to hit one company at a time or all at once—to the union membership when the time arrives for putting force behind their demands.

The big advantage of an industry-wide strike, when favorable conditions prevail, is that it puts the full weight of the membership behind the union’s demands, multiplying the force behind its bargaining position. However, such a bold tactic requires the existence of a leadership that not only has proven that it knows how to fight, but is also willing and able to lead its troops into battle, physically, taking the blows that come its way, as all good generals have done. Most importantly, leaders must listen as well as lead, because some of the best ideas of what must be done next come from the rank-and-file of a fighting union—its eyes, ears, and brains. That, by the way, is what genuine union democracy is all about.

In other words, while it’s always important to do what appears to be urgently necessary, it’s no less important for union leaders and their membership to decide whether or not what may be necessary is also possible! As one of history’s most capable, class-struggle-oriented working-class leaders once said, “The task of political leadership is to understand what is possible and necessary in a given situation, and what is not possible and not necessary. This may be said to be the gist of political leadership.”2

It should be evident that GM has already signaled to all concerned, including Chrysler, Ford, and their respective autoworker employees, that the moment is rotten-ripe to deal a mortal blow to the UAW. But we can be sure that the Big Three, and corporate America as a whole, also know that they must proceed cautiously, taking care to test the ground before them at every step of the way. The official leaders of the labor movement like to imagine that there is a community of interests between labor and capital—or as the capitalist media has often put it, that a rising tide raises all ships. But the tide has been rising for capitalists for the last 60 years while real wages have steadily fallen.3

The UAW crisis will crystallize in September

Once negotiations for a new contract between the UAW and the Big Three get underway, the companies’ immediate aims will begin getting clearer. However, we can expect that given Gettelfinger’s role in inserting the union-busting amendment into the existing contract, he is likely to adopt a militant stance in order to regain some of his lost influence with the dues-paying UAW membership.

But it would be a big mistake to take as good coin any sudden intransigence by Gettelfinger against further concessions. He gave a clue of his likelihood to adopt a seemingly militant stance when, as was reported at the March 27 UAW Bargaining Convention, “Gettelfinger waved his fist in the air and threatened to strike Delphi if they voided the contract.” (See the report immediately following, “The Language Isn’t Strong Enough,” by Gregg Shotwell.)

In fact, the circumstantial evidence already before us strongly suggests that soon after the bargaining process will have commenced, the Big Three will begin making their goals clearer. It’s hard to imagine that when the intentions of the employers are made known that it will not have a powerful impact on the more than a half-million UAW members—and they can see that what’s already happened to Delphi’s workforce is rapidly moving in their direction.

However, starting at the end of 2005 and continuing throughout 2006, something new was added to the UAW-GM/Delphi equation. SOS and several other closely allied militant rank-and-file formations have been firmly established as the only thing standing in the way of Gettelfinger’s royal road to ruin. SOS has already made a name for itself among autoworkers by its extraordinary efforts throughout 2006 to stop and reverse Gettelfinger’s latest gift to the Big Three. Now the group is well positioned to play a bigger role when the damage done to the union becomes clearer. But that is not likely to happen until after full-scale bargaining for a new labor contract between the UAW and the Big Three is well underway. That’s when statements by both sides begin coming out indicating the important issues so far agreed upon and those still in dispute.

There is still an outside chance that a misstep by the bosses and bureaucrats during the crucial period immediately ahead could suddenly bring home to UAW members what life would be like with a real union instead of a union in name only—like one of those old company unions.

Even if nothing happens to alter the likely outcome of upcoming negotiations between the UAW and GM, which are likely to be the “pattern-setter” for the entire auto industry, anything can happen when Chrysler and Ford must come to terms with the UAW as well. That’s why, as that famous philosopher of baseball history once put it so brilliantly: “It ain’t over ’til its over!”

And as another deep thinker from China also said: “We live in interesting times.”


1 See back issues of this magazine at for an in depth account of the three citywide strikes in 1934.

2 James P. Cannon, The History of American Trotskyism, Pioneer Publishers, 1944.

3 That real wages can fall, while the things workers can buy steadily become greater, has nothing to do with the question of whether they seem higher or lower. In a word, workers can buy much more today than 20, 50 or 100 years ago because machines have increased the productivity of labor power by that amount and more. Meanwhile, the portion of their labor product falls ever lower. That’s part of what Karl Marx meant by “the pauperization of the working class down toward an absolute state.”