High stakes for UAW at Jeep
By Lee Sustar | August 22, 2003 | Page 15
WORKERS AT the big Jeep complex in Toledo, Ohio, voted overwhelmingly August 7 to authorize a strike in a battle that could have an impact on negotiations for the entire auto industry. The 96 percent vote by members of United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 12 comes after a tumultuous year in which rank-and-file activists organized against high-handed tactics by union leaders to implement agreements with the employer, DaimlerChrysler.
In late 2002, Local 12 leaders pushed through a special one-year contract by forcing the union's skilled-trade unit to vote again on a contract that they had earlier rejected. Then, in May, union officials bowed to management demands for a four-day, 10-hour-a-day workweek without a union vote--even though the deal means the end of overtime pay after an eight-hour shift.
Workers' resentment at Jeep is rooted in the company's unceasing drive to squeeze more productivity out of fewer workers at the three-factory plant, which employed about 5,800 hourly workers in 1999 but employs just 4,200 today. The downsizing was made possible through a five-year contract signed in 1997, which approved layoffs and mandatory overtime to launch the Jeep Liberty model.
So even as jobs were cut, workers often found themselves forced to work 10-hour days, six days per week. Meanwhile, DaimlerChrysler kept new hires down by investing heavily in robotics and then demanding that skilled trades workers get special training in order to handle the new equipment.
The result is that management can play favorites about who gets qualified to handle the gear--and the rest lose out on voluntary overtime. At the same time, management is attacking the better-paid skilled trades by assigning low-seniority workers to handle any repair that's necessary--regardless of the line of demarcation between trades such as millwrights and electricians.
George Windau, a skilled trades worker who's been at the plant for 27 years, said that management wants workers who will "babysit" robots--and fix anything that goes wrong, regardless of work classification. "We've got 21st-century technology and 19th-century working conditions," Windau told Socialist Worker. "That's why Jeep is so important. If they can force this down our throats, then they can do it everywhere. That's the game plan."
Instead of meeting this challenge head-on, however, Local 12 has collaborated with management even at the cost of jobs and working conditions. When skilled trades workers voted down the 2002-2003 contract, Local 12's Jeep Unit Chair Nick Vuich scheduled a second vote on an identical deal. Activists who urged a "no" vote, such as Union Members for a Better Union, found themselves targets of a vicious red-baiting campaign and accused of attending "communist/socialist party meetings" in a flyer put out by union members aligned with Vuich.
"Vote YES, it is the AMERICAN WAY!" the flyer concluded. On the second vote, the skilled trades deal did go through--although more than 100 workers withheld their ballots and dozens more destroyed or spoiled their ballots with slogans or obscenities.
Then, in May, Vuich used a shop-floor petition to gain approval for the four-day, 10-hour work schedule without ever holding a membership vote. Ironically, Vuich had argued that a petition used by those opposed to the contract vote was "illegal" because it wasn't authorized by the union's executive committee.
What's more, according to Windau, Local 12 leaders have a history of making secret "shelf agreements" with management without the approval of the rank and file. At a membership meeting earlier this year, Vuich pledged to sign a statement that there would be no shelf agreements in the upcoming agreement--but has not done so, Windau said.
But today, Vuich finds himself under increasing pressure. Local 12 leaders obtained a one-year contract last year in order to have a common expiration date for the Jeep plant with the rest of the UAW workers at DaimlerChrysler and sought inclusion in the national bargaining structure.
In the past, the Toledo Jeep contract had been negotiated separately, a legacy of Chrysler's buyout of the old American Motors in the 1980s. Yet earlier this year, UAW leaders refused to fold the Toledo Jeep complex into the master agreement with DaimlerChrysler.
As a result, the company is taking a hard line in Toledo even as anger in the workforce simmers. By seeking strike authorization more than a month before the contract's expiration, Vuich is apparently looking for more leverage from the company while putting forward a fighting image to the rank and file. Vuich even attended a July 25 meeting of the dissident UAW Solidarity Coalition meeting in Toledo, where he debated his critics and defended his record.
For their part, activists in the coalition plan to highlight the battle at Jeep as a way to highlight the crucial issues involved in the Big Three contracts that cover 327,000 UAW members. At Toledo Jeep and across the industry, the defense of UAW jobs is a key issue, along with health care. If a bad proposed contract at Jeep is rejected before the Big Three deal comes to a vote, it could have a major impact across the union.