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UAW reformers plan strategy

By Lee Sustar | October 26, 2001 | Page 11

FLINT, Mich.--The United Auto Workers (UAW) policy of cooperation with management will be challenged by activists in the upcoming elections for convention delegates.

That strategy was mapped out by some 40 activists in a combined meeting last weekend held by the UAW Solidarity Coalition, organized out of the 1999 national auto contract talks, and the New Directions Movement, the reform caucus formed in the 1980s.

The meeting discussed a range of issues to be raised in the delegate races, including the campaign for direct election of the union's top officers, abolishing the use of labor-management "joint funds" to pay for a patronage army of those loyal to the union leadership, shifting more resources into organizing, a national master contract for parts manufacturers and the need for an industry-wide strike to win demands.

Participants also discussed their local struggles. Jan and Gene Austin, members of Local 594 at the General Motors truck plant in Pontiac, Mich., gave an update on their lawsuits against GM and the UAW International concerning corruption in their local, which saw the sons of UAW officials get jobs as part of a secret settlement to end a strike in 1997.

"I love my union," said Gene Austin, who received the highest vote total for delegate in his local in the last election in 1998. "But am I willing to shake it to its foundation to rid it of corruption? Absolutely."

Dean Braid, a member of Local 599 in the now-closed Buick City complex in Flint, reported that his local membership is now less than 4,000--down 75 percent from the early 1990s.

A member of Local 659 in Flint, a worker at one of the plants involved in a 59-day strike in 1998 that shut down GM's North American production, reported that the strike victory had been turned into a defeat as management has continued to gut the plants through outsourcing and layoffs.

A key focus of the discussion included a possible campaign for UAW president by Billy Robinson, former president of UAW Local 2036 in Henderson, Ky., which represents locked-out Accuride workers.

Several speakers argued that the expected successor to current president Steve Yokich--International Vice President Ron Gettelfinger--would mean only further decline for the union, which has plunged from 1.5 million members in 1979 to just 672,000 today.

Gettelfinger was the regional director overseeing the Accuride strike, which began in early 1998. The Accuride struggle should have been at the top of the UAW's agenda of rebuilding its strength in the auto-parts industry, which has gone from 75 percent unionized in the 1970s to just 20 percent today.

Instead of building support, the UAW cut off all strike benefits in August 1999--until a protest outside UAW headquarters in Detroit forced them to grant benefits 14 months later. The UAW International also put the local into receivership and barred Robinson from being president after he was forced to retire. Recently, the UAW cut Accuride workers' benefits in half.

Robinson told the meeting that he is willing to run to draw attention to the pressing issues facing the UAW, but will consult veterans of the defeated Caterpillar strikes and other union activists before making a final decision. "If they are willing to support me, I'll do it," he told Socialist Worker.

Behind the loss at Nissan

THE CRISIS facing the UAW was highlighted by its defeat in a union election last month at the Nissan plant in Smyrna, Tenn., by a 2 to 1 margin. It was the third failure by the UAW in its attempts to organize the plant.

The union faced the usual problems of organizing in anti-union Southern states against a hostile management. The 4,589 workers at the plant were forced to go to several "captive audience" meetings to hear anti-union propaganda.

But there were problems with the union's organizing approach as well. According to Bob King, the UAW International vice president in charge of organizing, the union relied more on house visits and the Internet than in-plant organizing. Without strong voices on the shop floor, no union drive can win.

And Nissan management was able to use the UAW's own recent history against it. In an e-mail message, a Nissan worker who voted against the union wrote, "They mentioned the [strikes and lockouts] at Accuride, Caterpillar and other places. They mentioned how Yokich and company has utilized the portion of dues that goes back to the International," including investments in the union's Black Lake resort in Michigan, the failed Pro Air airline, and the union's proposed purchase of a resort in Palm Springs.

There are today 1 million autoworkers in the U.S.--slightly more than the previous peak in 1979--but the union represents only about half of them. Organizing these nonunion workers must go hand in hand with the union's determination to show its power at its base.

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