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Will union leaders trade jobs for health care?
UAW at the crossroads

By Lee Sustar | August 8, 2003 | Page 11

LEAVE OUR health care coverage alone--and we'll help you eliminate tens of thousands of good-paying jobs in return. That's the deal that United Auto Workers (UAW) leaders are seeking in negotiations with the Big Three automakers and key parts suppliers for contracts covering 327,000 workers.

With a September 14 expiration date of the current four-year deal approaching, UAW President Ron Gettelfinger has repeatedly declared that the union won't agree to higher health insurance costs. But he has effectively opened the door to concessions as a tradeoff. With Ford, General Motors and DaimlerChrysler determined to gain a free hand to close plants and outsource jobs to lower-wage suppliers, givebacks would further decimate a union that's already less than half of its peak size of 1.5 million members in 1979.

The expansion of nonunion "transplants"--Japanese- and European-owned auto assembly operations within the U.S.--as well as more car imports has led to excess capacity and put further pressure on the Big Three to close factories. DaimlerChrysler, for example, has already closed six plants and eliminated 26,000 jobs since the last contract was signed in 1999. Ford has eliminated 6,700 jobs since then and is seeking to scrap 21,000 more UAW jobs over the life of the next four-year deal, according to Michigan's Oakland Press newspaper. For its part, GM has eliminated some 21,000 jobs in three years--and wants thousands more to go.

Moreover, nearly half of the Big Three's UAW employees are within five years of retirement eligibility. This will enable companies to permanently eliminate jobs by failing to replace retirees--further gutting the economy of traditional auto centers like Flint, Mich.

And despite Gettelfinger's promises, the Big Three will seek some concessions in health care to try to contain costs that have shot up 40 percent since 1997. GM alone spent $4.5 billion in health care last year, making the company the largest purchaser of health care in the U.S.

Pensions are another key issue. GM's pension fund for 1.2 million retirees is underfunded by a stunning $25 billion. Gettelfinger has promised to hold the line on pensions. Yet the UAW has backed a pension law reform that would allow employers to fund pensions at lower levels--hardly a comforting thought for the 2.1 million retirees, spouses and dependants who rely on those plans.

That's why Gettelfinger's tough talk on health care alarms longtime UAW activists and officials. They're worried by the union's silence on other key issues. "When you zero in on one area of the contract, such as health care, you are giving the company much greater leverage, because you're letting the company know what it has to settle," Warren Davis, former director of UAW Region 2, told Socialist Worker. "The position should be no concessions, period," said Davis, who was ousted from the UAW International Executive Board a year ago for failing to adhere to the ruling Administration Caucus' mandatory retirement rule.

Davis was a guest speaker at a July 27 meeting in Toledo, Ohio, of the UAW Solidarity Coalition, an activist group dedicated to building a more militant and democratic union.

Gregg Shotwell, a coalition member and worker at the Delphi--formerly GM--parts plant in Coopersville, Mich., represented by UAW Local 2151, said that worries of a massive downsizing are well founded. "This isn't a hypothetical guess," he said. "The history of Gettelfinger and the UAW is a history of trading jobs for wages and benefits."

Consider GM's 1999 spinoff of Delphi--which the late former UAW President Stephen Yokich vowed to stop. The number of GM's UAW employees has been slashed from 44,000 in 1999 to just 30,400 today. Union members are a rapidly decreasing proportion of the company's 189,000-strong workforce, increasingly located in Mexico and Asia.

Visteon, the parts division spun off by Ford the following year, is also driving down UAW standards. Union officials have allowed the company to open five new plants outside the master Visteon-UAW contract, paying wages far below the Big Three levels. The union also allowed Visteon--where workers make a Ford-level wage of $26 an hour--to outsource seat covers to supplier Johnson Controls, where UAW members get just $12 an hour.

In effect, the UAW is giving the Big Three the green light to wipe out decades of gains at the Big Three--as long as the union's dues machine keeps running on lower-waged parts workers' pay.

That's what happened in May when UAW officials pressured workers to vote for concessions at parts-maker Metaldyne. Wages were slashed overnight at the former DaimlerChrysler plant in New Castle, Ind., from $26 an hour to $16 an hour. In return, Metaldyne allowed the union to obtain recognition at the company's nonunion plants by signing up a majority of workers, a method known as "card check."

With this approach to organizing, it's no wonder that the UAW was forced to withdraw organizers from a Honda plant in Ohio earlier this year--following a third defeat of a union drive at a Nissan plant in Tennessee in 2001.

What's more, UAW organizers in the Midwest say privately that every employer targeted by the union points to Accuride--the Henderson, Ky., parts maker where the UAW International abandoned locked-out Local 2036 after a four-year fight personally authorized by Gettelfinger in 1998 in his former role as a regional director.

With the union in crisis, reformers in the UAW Solidarity Coalition are seeking to highlight key issues with shop newsletters and leaflets to demand a full discussion before any contract comes to a vote. As Gene Austin, shop committee chair of UAW Local 594 at the GM truck assembly plant in Pontiac, Mich., puts it, "This contract will dictate what direction we go in the future. I think we're at a fork in the road."

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