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New "test case" in the auto industry
A fight for labor's future at Delphi

January 20, 2006 | Page 12

NICOLE COLSON reports on the war at Delphi--between a management bent on cutting wages in half, and union members who want to defend their jobs and their unions.

THE SIGN outside the 300,000-square foot Delphi Automotive Systems complex in Oak Creek, Wis., says "For Lease."

For the more than 800 members of United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 438 who work at the plant, it's a daily and bitter reminder of what's at stake in the fight shaping up between Delphi and the UAW--and the larger fight to stop the destruction of decent jobs in the U.S. auto industry.

Delphi is the former parts division of auto giant General Motors. It was spun off into an independent company in 1999. Six years later, last October, Delphi filed for bankruptcy.

It's now seeking massive concessions from its workforce--and may ask the bankruptcy court to void its existing union contracts. But the company has put off several deadlines for taking action--because Delphi workers refused to accept concessions passively, forcing UAW leaders to take a tougher stand, including talk of a strike.

The company's latest proposal would cut wages by as much as 54 percent--from a high of $27 an hour to $12.50 an hour--and eliminate 24,000 union jobs, leading to an unspecified number of plant closures.

Delphi workers now wonder whether jobs that were once highly prized will be worth going back to--and if they will be forced into the same kind of concessionary deal UAW International leaders recently forced on Ford workers, which included cuts in wages and retiree health care.

Gregg Shotwell, a member of UAW Local 2151 at the Delphi plant in Coopersville, Mich., and an organizer in the recently formed Soldiers of Solidarity (SOS) network, says that as soon as the door is opened to the kind of concessions that Delphi management is demanding, pensions and health care will never be safe. That's especially true for retired workers, Shotwell says, since the company will use these so-called "legacy costs" as a hammer to beat younger workers.

But the fight at Delphi is about more than the future of individual UAW members there. It's connected to the struggle of all autoworkers, who have seen an industry once known for decent-paying jobs with good benefits decimate workers' livelihoods and go increasingly nonunion.

In November, for example, GM announced plans to cut 30,000 jobs and close a dozen plants in North America. Ford is expected to make a similar "restructuring" announcement later this month.

"I personally believe that General Motors would like to go bankrupt in the United States, but that they're not ready today," said Shotwell. "Delphi is the test case. If Delphi is successful at it, GM is going to do it in a few years. So we have to stop this. We have to make it as difficult as possible. Go back to the playground, when the bully takes your lunch. If you don't fight back, he's going to take it every day. And if he's too big, then you've got to get a gang. So we have to get our gang together."

At a recent meeting of Delphi workers in Oak Creek organized by SOS, Stacey Kemp, a member of UAW Local 476 and a worker at the company's Saginaw, Mich., chassis plant, told the crowd that she was just one-and-a-half years from retirement--and worries that her pension won't be there for her.

"I was watching Fox News the other day, and they had a roundtable discussion about the economy, and how it's good for us workers to lose our pensions," she said. "The crux of what they said was that losing your pension 'frees' you to have more financial choices. They also said that promises were going to be broken anyway, so tough break. Better you than us.

"I don't understand why so many of us believe this crap. GM had the best year since '78 in global profits this last year. Delphi is number 63 on the Fortune 500 list. These companies are prospering. This, while they're telling you, the American worker, that they're broke...They want us to accept low wages and no expectations as the wave of the future."

John Ingram, a member of the executive board of UAW Local 2488 in Bloomington, Ill., knows about low wages and no expectations. Ingram, who drove four hours to attend the meeting in Oak Creek, told Socialist Worker that he's been laid off from a Mitsubishi Motors plant for more than a year.

"When I do go back to work--which will probably be sometime in 2007, I'm guessing at this point--all this is going to trickle down to me since we pattern bargain," Ingram said. "I'm figuring I'm going to have about 10 years until I retire, but there's not going to be anything there for me, because somebody else is getting rich off of it."

Ingram says it "breaks my heart to see what's happening at Delphi." But, he says, "I believe they have the power right now to put a stop to it...Unless you start getting into [the company's] pockets, they're just going to treat workers like dirt--disposable."

Rob Wilson, a member of UAW Local 974, who has worked at Caterpillar in Peoria, Ill., for six years, told the crowd in Oak Creek that Cat workers also know what's at stake in the fight against concessions--because they've lived through their own battles.

"I was one of the first offspring of the '98 agreement that created a two-tier wage system at Caterpillar," said Wilson. "You have UAW members who are full wage. You have UAW members who come in as what they call 'supplemental'--they have no rights to holidays, no rights to paid vacations, no rights to the grievance procedure...It's not two-tiers [of wages]. It's five tiers. There are five different types of workers."

As Wilson continued, "I know this thing is about Delphi right now, General Motors, Ford--but it's really going to go everywhere."

In the face of the industry's demands for concessions, some rank-and-file Delphi workers and other UAW activists are beginning to build opposition. Action of the shop floor, say activists, is key--and SOS has been encouraging a work-to-rule campaign among Delphi workers.

According to Todd Jordan, a member of UAW Local 292 at the Delphi plant in Kokomo, Ind., a work-to-rule campaign at his plant carried out be a group of about 10 workers has his plant operating at 60 percent of normal.

SOS also pulled together an inspiring protest of more than 700 rank-and-file union members and activists at the Detroit Auto Show January 8. "It was a great turnout," said Jordan. "Lots of people from all over the state of Michigan come out in support...We had several dozen activists from various plants--key plants--that came out and were doing their part. The solidarity there is what the people are thirsty for, and what the union bureaucracy has denied us--real solidarity from the bottom."

On January 23, SOS plans to build on that solidarity by showing up at Delphi's front door--with a picket at Delphi headquarters in Troy, Mich., at 2:30 p.m.

Shotwell says that Delphi workers can't allow themselves to be intimidated anymore by threats of bankruptcy and concessions. "[The media] said, 'Aren't you biting the hand that feeds you?'" Shotwell said. "In other words, if you strike and you put General Motors down, how are they going to have the money that you require for a satisfactory contract? Aren't you biting the hand that feeds you? I said, 'No. We're biting the hand that slapped us, that cheated us and that robbed us.'"

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