‘The Language Isn’t Strong Enough’A Report on the 2007 UAW Bargaining Convention

By Gregg Shotwell

The 2007 UAW Bargaining Convention format was sanitized, preshrunk, and bleached. The one-size-fits-all style was designed to control the rancor of the rank and file. But work to rule is a tool for all trades and a master of one—tipping the balance of power.

Mike Parker, a delegate from Local 1700, busted the seams of uniform decorum before Gettelfinger could pound the podium.

When the chair requested a motion to accept the Rules Committee Report at the start of the convention, Parker demanded a point of order and made a motion to amend the rules.

The proposed rules restricted delegates from making amendments to the resolutions; limited debate with tedious time consuming recitations rather than summaries; and relegated precious time that should have been allocated to debate to political dignitaries. Parker’s amendment declared:

“The agenda for the Wednesday morning session will be Organizing to Fight Back. This session will cover how we can mobilize our members, build solidarity, resist company whipsawing and divisive strategies like two tier, and pitting older workers against younger workers. To make time for this session, short presentation summaries will be used instead of reading the complete resolution book, and guest speakers will be asked to keep their comments brief.”

Voices from all over the convention floor yelled, “Support.”

The Chair attempted to dispose of the point of order, but Parker stood his ground. Since a motion to accept the rules had not been approved, there were no rules governing the convention except Robert’s Rules of Parliamentary Procedure. The amendment was in order, it had been seconded, and was now open for discussion. Parker proceeded.

“The key to these negotiations is not whether we have a nice wish list of bargaining demands but how we are going to fight the companies. The companies have made it clear they are not our partners and will take everything they can get.

“How do we take on their whipsawing?

“How do we take on the cancer of Two Tier, this pitting of older workers against younger workers?

“I would point out that I find nothing in this resolution against Two Tier and indeed some vague justifications for it. We cannot afford to be unclear on this question which rots the foundation of unionism. Even before official bargaining starts the company is tearing the union apart in the Big Three. The companies are forcing concessionary contracts which undermine our pattern bargaining.

“I would point out that I find nothing in this resolution against Two Tier and indeed some vague justifications for it. We can not afford to be unclear on this question which rots the foundation of unionism.

“We are supposed to be the leaders of this union. I ask you to start acting as leaders and let’s get this convention addressing the real problems.”

The charade was over. The emperor was naked and everyone knew it.” The next delegate, Paul Baxter from Local 659, said:

“I support the amendment to the rules. The strategy of cooperation with management is a failure. We cannot go on pretending that the companies are our partners. How can you ask us to be partners with liars, cheaters, and thieves? This resolution book is nothing but a wish list. We need a more effective strategy to fight back.”

A sister from Local 7 opposed the amendment. She denied knowledge of any “cue cards” but relied on the time worn cliché, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” She called for the question to end debate, which is standard “cue card” performance.

Wendy Thompson, a delegate from Local 235, demanded a point of order. She said, “It is broken” and appealed to the delegates to continue discussion and not prohibit debate.

The chair ruled her out of order and cut her speech short. The delegates turned the amendment down with a voice vote but Parker’s challenge set the tone of the convention. Delegates unaccustomed to opposing the administration came forward to “oppose the resolution because the language isn’t strong enough.” The phrase became a common refrain.

Fine print vs. bold print

In regard to contract workers several delegates complained about having to work side by side with non-union workers. “Why are they in our plants?” asked Don Dekker from Local 371.

Jerry Urn, a delegate from Region 4, stated his wholehearted support for President Gettelfinger and the UAW but opposed the resolution and echoed the refrain, “because the language isn’t strong enough.” He reaffirmed his support of the UAW, but he repeated twice for clarity and emphasis, “My members hate two tier.”

Page 19 of the official resolution book states: “We also recognize the need for supplemental labor agreements, at different wage and benefit rates, in specific business circumstances where competitive pressure requires an alternative approach to maintain employment opportunities for our members and potential members.”

The words “two tier” are carefully evaded but the intent is clear. A trade-off is in the cards: reduced wages and benefits in return for “employment opportunities.”

Two tier is not a union agreement, it’s a prepaid funeral arrangement. In 2003 the UAW pushed through a ratification of the national agreement and then later negotiated a two-tier supplemental agreement for Delphi that was never ratified by the members. The two-tier supplement cut wages almost in half, reduced health care benefits, and eliminated the pension. It wasn’t enough to satisfy the “liars, cheaters, and thieves.”

Wendy Thompson rose in opposition to the weak language of the resolution. She said we must clearly state, “ No Two Tier.”The tone of her voice underlined each word. She further advocated that we organize a campaign to “take Chrysler off the market.”

“Make noise,” she said. “Mobilize the membership. What we are facing is new and more difficult than ever. The membership is demoralized. We should not go away from this convention without a discussion of how to mobilize the membership.”

The Concession Caucus started a campaign in 2005 called Mobilizing@Delphi but it never materialized. Their idea of mobilization does not include the rank and file. They consolidate power in the front office and function more like a human resource management team than a union. The Concession Caucus prefers to negotiate in the backroom and the courtroom but the results have been dismal. The compromise and retreat strategy not only erodes our wages, benefits, and working conditions, it divides the union, degrades new members, and discourages organizing. Who needs a union to bargain for concessions?

No concessions

Gary Walkowicz, a delegate from Local 600, stated his case bluntly.

“I speak in opposition to the resolution because it does not say what needs to be said; It does not say what our members want us to say—‘No More Concessions.’ That is the message that the members in my plant sent me to bring to this Convention. This letter to the delegates [was also] signed by over 1,000 members of the Dearborn Truck Plant. This letter was also signed by more than another thousand members in some of your plants, signed by retirees from your locals.

“‘No More concessions.’ That is the message that I know many of you are hearing from your own members. It’s time to stop concessions. What has concessions gotten us, except more concessions? We give up wage increases and promises to retirees are broken. And then the corporations come right back and threaten us, pitting plant against plant, whipsawing us into passing C.O.A.s [Competitive Operating Agreements] outsourcing our own jobs. I know the pressure that puts on the local leaderships.

“And then the ink is not even dry on the C.O.A.s and the corporations are demanding more concessions in the national contract. Giving up concessions has only made the corporations bolder and made them more greedy. Fellow delegates, I know there are those of you who see the same thing. I say that the business of this Convention should be to take a stand against concessions. The business of this Convention should be to organize a fight against corporate greed, to defend the hard-won gains of this union. I believe this is what our members want us to do.”

Mark Payne, a delegate from Local 1250, also objected to COAs. He said the companies keep redefining what they term “core business.” He insisted, “All our jobs are core business.”

Mike Libber, a delegate from Region 3, complained that the companies use money saved from concessions to invest in non-union plants.

Paul Baxter, a delegate from Local 659, said, “Without stronger language we will be invested into oblivion because every investment is contingent on a net loss of jobs.’

‘This is not a CAP convention, it’s a bargaining convention”

Justin “Double Barrel” West, a four-time delegate from Local 2488, eliminated any doubt that this was a business as usual convention.”

“I rise in opposition regarding ‘income security issues. ’ Two tiers is killing this union. This resolution hardly mentions tiered wage scales amongst other concessions. Delphi executives continue to extract bonuses as rewards for their heinous attack on workers across the globe. Ford rewards its executives with bonuses for extracting wage and benefit concessions from workers and retirees. Now, Daimler-Chrysler, in the midst of their continued profitable corporate record, seeks to cover it all up so they too can join the concessions bandwagon.

“We, the membership, as elected reps from across the nation and Canada and Puerto Rico...from varying industries and job classifications, need to share with the leadership of the International...and with each other...our ideas on how to combat the corporate economic terrorism being foisted upon all working people across the globe. How do we fight back? When will it end?

“Let there be no doubt that the UAW is in a fight for survival: the media calls it a ‘fight for relevance.’ Meanwhile, the UAW International’s approach has been to espouse: ‘Good things come from competitive corporations.’ Or that partnerships fostering cooperation with the corps is the way to go. Brother Gettelfinger gave a tremendous opening speech but even within his oration, he stated that we should not confuse cooperation with capitulation.

“Brother Gettelfinger, I am from Peoria, Illinois and I was at the convention in 1998 when our late President Steve Yokich called the concessionary filled settlement at Caterpillar Tractor a ‘victory.’ Caterpillar is hiring...2nd tier wages, no benefits, no seniority, and full-time temps! Concessions, be they at GM, Ford, Chrysler, American Axle, Delphi, Visteon, Mitsubishi, NUMMI, and or elsewhere, will not be a victory!

“Brother Gettelfinger, we gave Delphi the GM plants; we gave Delphi two-tier wages; we gave Delphi the GM workers’ pensions! These concessions have not sated that corporation’s thirst for more blood in this race to the bottom. Delphi has declared a bankruptcy organized to destroy every last shred of dignity and security that generations of union members fought and sacrificed to achieve. My point is, Brother Gettelfinger, concessions do not save jobs! To you, the International leadership, I urge you not to confuse ‘victory’ with ‘concessions.’

“Brother Gettelfinger: you say much of these problems need to be addressed through government legislation...but this is not a CAP Convention, this is a Bargaining Convention...what can we as workers do, directly, now to help fight this onslaught of corporate greed before the Big Three talks—on our jobs, at our Locals, amongst our brothers and sisters? To this body, I urge you to vote this resolution down until we address strategies to mobilize and fight back at the grassroots level.

“Lastly, thank you, Brother Gettelfinger, for mentioning the struggle at Conn-Selmer, the Vincent Bach plant. Those locked-out members are on the front lines, suffering but hanging in there to defend the American Dream.”

The delegates burst into applause and Gettelfinger added another name to a list that was growing longer.

Vicky Varaclay, a delegate from an American Axle plant related how the lack of a pattern agreement was undermining collective bargaining. “We need stronger language on whipsawing.”

Several delegates objected to takeaways from retirees who “can’t afford copays” on a fixed income. “Retirees are worried sick” about medical expenses. “When you go in and change a plan [in the middle of a contract] you make people afraid,” a retired delegate said.

The strategy of containing rebellion against the corporate agenda by channeling anger toward politics instead of employers is on its last legs. Too many delegates said, “The language isn’t strong enough.”

The rank & file is the backbone

The next morning at a Concession Caucus breakfast for delegates Gettelfinger ridiculed the small group of union members who carried picket signs in front of the convention center the day before. Their signs said things like: Equal Pay for Equal Work, No Two Tier, Equal Rights for New Hires, Protect Our Pensions, Hold GM Accountable for Delphi Pensions, Hands Off My Pension, Put the Backbone Back into the UAW, Stop Whipsawing.

What exactly did Gettelfinger disagree with? How do those ideas conflict with the UAW agenda for bargaining?

On the first day of the convention soldiers of solidarity distributed the No Concession leaflet to delegates. On the second morning they distributed the leaflet about Delphi pensions which reiterated my conversation with UAW-VP Dick Shoemaker at the Constitutional Convention. Shoemaker declined to speak publicly for the record but admitted privately that the issue was unresolved and still had to be negotiated. The flip side of that flier was titled “Put the Backbone Back in the UAW.” Gettelfinger took one from a soldier and went into the hall.

One question: the delphi pension

Before the convention started I saw Gettelfinger in the lobby glad handing delegates. I waited my turn, shook his hand, and asked, “What will happen to the Delphi pension when the Benefit Guarantee expires at the end of this contract?”

“Gregg, we know you’re not supposed to be here,”

Gettelfinger said. “We know you’re not a delegate anymore.” He looked at my Press Pass. “And we know you’re not a reporter either.

“But that’s all right. We don’t mind that you’re here.”

I repeated the question. “What will happen to the Delphi pension when the Benefit Guarantee expires at the end of this contract?”

“I saw what you wrote about Dick Shoemaker,” Gettelfinger said. “Gregg, you don’t hurt us, and you don’t help us, either way.”

I hesitate to interpret the motivations of superior beings but I think he wanted to make me feel insignificant. It didn’t seem important to me, so I repeated the question. “What will happen to the Delphi pension when the Benefit Guarantee expires at the end of this contract?”

“You should ask the UAW-GM department,” he said.

I have asked them several times but I can’t get an answer. It’s important to UAW members from Delphi. I know people who worked more than 30 years for GM and have a Delphi pension today. They want an answer.”

“We know you’re not supposed to be here, Gregg. But that’s all right with us. We don’t mind that you’re here. See? I’m not such a bad guy.”

I don’t know what his guyness had to do with it, but to his credit about an hour later here comes Mike Grimes and David Shoemaker from the UAW-GM department to talk with me. My cohort, Bob Mabbit from the UnCommonSensestarted rolling the video camera but they refused to speak on record. We walked down a hallway and talked privately.

They explained that “Ron Gettelfinger told us to come out and talk with you and answer your questions.”

I repeated the one question.

They assured me that Delphi was a top priority. “We have told GM It is our position that the Benefit Guarantee will be triggered before the Delphi situation is settled.”

I told them I was glad to hear that the UAW was committed to holding GM accountable for our pensions, but the UAW can’t trigger the Benefit Guarantee. Events trigger the Benefit Guarantee. If Delphi doesn’t stop paying the pension before the Benefit Guarantee expires, there is no triggering event.

“We can cause them financial distress,” Shoemaker said.

“Do you mean a strike?” I asked.

“As far as we are concerned they are already in financial distress,” Grimes said.

In other words it still has to be negotiated and no one, neither GM, Delphi, nor the UAW has stated publicly for the record that GM is accountable for the Delphi pensions.

The fight for dignity

Back in the convention delegates were debating a resolution on Health and Safety. Vanessa Williams from Local 155 said, “IPS [Independent Parts Suppliers] feel lost and left out.” She reported that workers “injured daily” in her plant were harassed by management and they had to call MIOSHA despite the fact they have union representation.

Mike Parker from Local 1700 said the resolution failed to address “the fundamental problem—the right to refuse an unsafe job.” He explained that too often workers were forced to work in conditions they felt were unsafe while managers took their sweet time making up their minds. He called on delegates to “empower workers” with the right to refuse unsafe work.

Paul Baxter from Local 659 in Flint said, “Unionism is about the fight for dignity.” He said that assembly work cycles were “so tight you can’t get a drink or put a stick of gum in your mouth.” He cited a passage from the Bible on the treatment of farm animals. “We should at least hold management to the same standard.”

At the end of the convention Wendy Thompson talked about the massive rally organized against Delphi’s threat to close one plant in Spain. She said, “We should organize a rally for the opening day of negotiations.” The convention burst into applause.

Where do we go from here?

On the first day of the convention, Gettelfinger waved his fist in the air and threatened to strike Delphi if they voided the contract. It was a strange act considering how much ground he has surrendered. However, the message from the floor was consistent and clear, “The language isn’t strong enough.”

Workers don’t want more concessions, cooperation with corporate restructuring, or competitive agreements. If we wait for the Concession Caucus to mobilize resistance, we’ll all get Delphied.

Continue to collect signatures on the No Concession Petition; whether you collect one or one thousand signatures mail the copies to:

No Concessions Petition

P.O. Box 202

Montrose, MI 48457

A soldier of solidarity will see they are delivered to negotiators on or before the opening day of negotiations. We are the backbone of the UAW. Let’s show them what we’re made of.

SOS, Gregg Shotwell

UAW Local 1753