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Labor's new era of cooperation

By Sharon Smith | September 26, 2003 | Page 7

"SINCE THE start of these negotiations, one of our goals has been to bring this industry together," stated United Auto Workers (UAW) President Ron Gettelfinger as he announced the union's sweeping agreement with Detroit's "Big Three" auto makers--General Motors (GM), Ford and Chrysler--and two parts suppliers. Rick Wagoner, chairman and chief executive of GM, said the agreement "will enable us to work together effectively to address what is pretty clearly a challenging set of competitors."

Mutual backslapping characterized the recent auto negotiations, concluded on September 18, seeming to herald a new era of labor-management cooperation. But the UAW contract actually signals a sharp escalation in the "one-sided class war," first described by UAW President Doug Fraser in 1979.

Once one of the nation's most powerful unions, the UAW has agreed to a two-year wage freeze, lower pay for new hires and thousands of layoffs--setting the precedent for concessions on a scale not seen since the Reagan era. Most "experts" have hailed the UAW agreement as a necessary strategy to fend off foreign competition.

"Unions are more sympathetic, more aware of the competitive problems that employers face," explained Paul F. Clark, a labor relations professor at Pennsylvania State University. But foreign competition alone cannot explain the falling pay of U.S. workers today.

The vast majority of low-paid workers--from janitors to health care workers--hold service jobs that cannot be sent overseas. For more than two decades, unionists have been forced to compete domestically with an ever-growing sector of low-wage non-union workers--in a downward spiral that has sharply lowered wages across the working class.

In the 1950s and 1960s, GM and Ford workers' union contracts set a standard that raised wages for all workers. Today the viciously anti-union Wal-Mart Corporation, the nation's largest employer--which pays its workers an average hourly wage of $7.50--is driving wages down.

For the last 25 years, class inequality in the U.S. has grown without interruption. Wages fell dramatically under Reagan in the 1980s, only beginning to rise in 1997--then in 2002 they began falling again. But corporations began a sustained offensive, attacking unions to force wages down, before Reagan took office.

In 1979, a Business Week editorial bluntly outlined business' long-term goals: "It will be a hard pill for many Americans to swallow--the idea of doing with less so that business can have more...Nothing that this nation, or any other nation, has done in modern economic history compares in difficulty with the selling job that must be done to make people accept the new reality."

Today, workers' earnings are worth less than in 1972. Thirty million Americans--one in four U.S. workers--earn $18,100 a year or less, below the official poverty line for a family of four. Meanwhile, rent and utilities for a typical two-bedroom apartment have increased by more than a third since 1999, to an average of $791 per month--unaffordable for anyone earning less than $15.21 an hour, according to a September 9 report by the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

This is the context in which some of the world's most profitable corporations are escalating their war on workers. Caterpillar, Inc., the earth-moving equipment manufacturer, with revenues of $20.15 billion last year, increased its Peoria plant's already enormous profit margins by sharply raising productivity.

Yet Caterpillar--which fought and won a bitter battle with its UAW workers in the 1990s by hiring replacements for striking workers--just launched a court challenge to a new Illinois law than bars companies from using day laborers to replace striking workers. And the company has already made clear its intention to defeat the union if workers strike when their contract expires on March 31.

In these conditions, "cooperation" with management merely allows profitable corporations to force wages down further--by giving up without a fight. Class struggle built industrial unions in the 1930s, during the Great Depression, under even harsher circumstances than today. If the U.S. labor movement is to go forward once again, a new day of reckoning must arrive.

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