Protect UAW Retirees’ Future
By Jerry Tucker
Collaboration between the United Auto Workers (UAW) and General Motors (GM), over 20 years in the making, is well known and now accepted as standard operating procedure. Although rarely discussed openly, its footprints are everywhere. A prime example is the current “tentative agreement” that would force retirees to pay a bigger percentage of their healthcare ,and active workers to pick up the tab. At the same time, fearful of backlash from members, the union has filed a lawsuit preventing UAW retirees from taking legal action against GM.
The current round of collaboration began in April 2005 after UAW President Ron Gettelfinger told GM, “Don’t Push Me.” He assured anxious and angry workers that he would not open the contract to alter healthcare benefits and that GM could not unilaterally alter retirement benefits. He promised to work within the confines of the contract. He then attended secret meetings with Delphi, other major suppliers, and the Big Three automakers. After consulting with Wall Street analysts, Gettelfinger did in fact open the contract, thus allowing GM to change healthcare benefits for existing retirees. What GM could not legally do themselves, Gettelfinger did for them.
What is shocking about the lawsuit is that it makes the collaboration so transparent. By getting a couple of proxies to file a class-action lawsuit against GM (and providing lawyers), the union could both “manage” the scope of the suit and be declared the sole representatives of UAW-GM retirees. This means retirees will not be able to file a class-action suit of their own, nor have an independent say in any proposed remedy. This set-up leaves the door open for further cuts in retiree benefits.
The Detroit Free Press reported: “A statement from GM said the car company ‘supports this action.’ GM and the UAW agreed, as part of the overall tentative settlement announced on Oct. 17, 2005, that the UAW would seek court approval. GM also agreed to work with the UAW to expedite such reviews and approval. Today’s action constitutes the initial step in implementing this element of the agreement” (Detroit Free Press, “Retirees Worry as UAW Seeks Court OK.” Oct. 19, 2005).
No wonder GM “supports this action.” With the cooperation of the UAW, GM is protected from UAW retirees after successfully altering their healthcare benefits. This type of cooperation has a name: company unionism. It is the policy of the Administrative Caucus.
UAW retirees should attend court proceedings in full force and demand, first, that their opinions be included in the suit, and second, that any court approval of post-retirement concessions be contingent on retirees’ right to vote.
Single-Payer National Healthcare
h6What happened to the union’s demand for GM to support a single-payer national healthcare system? Why wasn’t action on healthcare reform a precondition to discussions on healthcare? Both the company and the union understand the importance of a universal healthcare system. Both could have lobbied Congress, built support in the working class, and showed that unions aren’t just for current members. All Big Three contracts with the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) state, “Publicly funded healthcare…has been a significant factor in maintaining and attracting new auto investment to Canada.” Furthermore, they pledge to lobby federal and provincial governments for it.
What accounts for the difference? Many of us would link it to the UAW’s collaboration/jointness model of unionism, something the CAW has resisted for many years. So where does that leave UAW retirees and active workers?
If the UAW accepts the premise that workers should bear the burden of a wasteful, inefficient healthcare system, what hope do less fortunate, nonunion workers have? Gettelfinger says, “Single-payer national healthcare has long been a goal of the UAW.” But these are water-over-the-damned words, meant to soothe and pacify the sleeping giant into silence. If rank-and-file passivity were not the goal, the UAW would promote national healthcare as the best solution for all working people—not with words, but with actions. Instead of forcing the Big Three to demand universal healthcare as the logical solution to their cost differential with foreign automakers, the International is honing the corporate ax to be used against workers.
Did Rick Wagoner, CEO of General Motors, attend the same sugar-coated seminar as Gettelfinger did, or did they simply get their stories straight? Wagoner told the Associated Press, “Healthcare costs in this country are out of control. We would really like to see much more focus and leadership from elected officials, especially in Washington.” His words belie his actions.
UAW members should not let GM and the other auto companies make them pay for mismanagement and the inexcusable failure to conduct business in a socially responsible way. For UAW members, active and retired, this latest product of the collaboration/jointness model of unionism puts us on another slippery slope of unwarranted givebacks. Does anyone believe it’s the last time, and that they won’t be back for more?
On behalf of themselves and all American workers, UAW members should reject this assault on the hard-fought gains of retirees.
UAW members should proceed without concern for corporate America (GM), but with deep concern and utmost diligence for the well-being of America’s working class. We urge UAW members to vote against these concessions, first and foremost to protect retirees, who not only sacrificed for our well-being, but who do not have the right to vote on contracts. If we open the door to concessions on retiree healthcare, then we set a precedent for more concessions in the future. The UAW lawsuit against GM doesn’t prevent cuts in healthcare for retirees; it endorses the UAW’s collaboration with corporations in executing changes the company wants. Active members jeopardize their own security by endorsing such a policy.
—UAW New Directions Movement, October 21, 2005