Organizing for a new direction

June 16, 2010

Lee Sustar looks at the politics and issues surrounding two events coming up this month in Detroit: the United Auto Workers convention and U.S. Social Forum.

TWO GATHERINGS in Detroit this month will take up the economic and political questions that face both the hard-hit city and a labor movement that once won workers there the highest standard of living in the country.

First comes the weeklong United Auto Workers (UAW) convention, to be held in the city's Cobo Hall convention center beginning June 14. The convention roll call will show that the UAW has its fewest number of members since the late 1930s, when an unlikely combination of radicals, socialist and communists laid the foundation for a union that would bring the world's most powerful corporations to their needs.

Then, in the same building, the U.S. Social Forum (USSF) convenes on June 22-26. That gathering is expected to draw more than 10,000 people, many of them young and all animated by the rebellious spirit that gave rise to the UAW some 75 years ago.

THE UAW could use a transfusion of the USSF's energy. The union today, buffeted by decades of downsizing and concessions handed to the auto companies--is only a shadow of its former self.

Bob King is the union leadership's choice to take over as president of the United Auto Workers
Bob King is the union leadership's choice to take over as president of the United Auto Workers

Some of the most catastrophic losses came in early 2009, when outgoing UAW President Ron Gettelfinger collaborated with General Motors and Chrysler management and the Obama administration to push through concessions that slashed tens of thousands of jobs, cut benefits, eliminated decades of work rules that protect workers from management abuse, and barred the workers from striking.

As a result of the GM deal, the UAW, through a health benefit fund that it controls, is a major shareholder in the company, functioning as a junior partner with the U.S. government, which owns the controlling shares of GM.

Ford wanted identical givebacks. But in the fall of 2009, UAW workers at the company sent their union leaders a message: enough. UAW officials--including Bob King, set to become UAW president this week--tried to convince Ford workers approve the concessions. Yet King, then head of the UAW's Ford department, was shouted down at one plant when he personally tried to sell the deal.

One of the leaders of the opposition to Ford concessions, Gary Walkowicz, a bargaining committeeman at Ford's Rouge complex, will challenge King for the UAW presidency at the convention. It will be the first such challenge in the UAW since 1992, when Jerry Tucker, a former UAW regional director and leader of the New Directions caucus, put his name forward for the top spot.

What you can do

Get more information, include a schedule of conference events, at the U.S. Social Forum Web site.

In a written statement, Tucker summed up the importance of Walkowicz's challenge:

For a shrunken, battered union rank and file, a contest featuring the opportunity to foster a debate on the ruling administration's policies and the resulting sorely unmet needs of the membership should be a very welcome thing. The 17-year cicada birth cycle occurs more often than a real election at a UAW convention.

Our members in the domestic auto industry have been making wave after wave of union leadership-promoted concessions to ruthless, irresponsible corporations. And today, we have little other than an industrial landscape of empty, idle plants, ridiculous two-tier wage schemes, busted family budgets, gripping retirement health care and pension insecurity to show for it.

That case will also be made by a small band of dissident union delegates. "Our message is: 'One million members lost--we must change course,'" said Frank Hammer, a founder of the Autoworkers Caravan, a group of UAW members and retirees that emerged in 2008 to press for a pro-labor, pro-environment solution to GM's bankruptcy.

Current UAW membership stands at about 355,000, much of that outside the auto industry. Hammer and other UAW dissidents were on hand to greet delegates as they arrived and organize for a genuine debate on the convention floor.

Whether or not the UAW has a candid discussion on the convention floor, Bob King is virtually certain to be elected. And while he has been central to the strategy of making concessions to the automakers with the hope of saving jobs, he has also given personal support for a variety of social justice causes. Thus, the UAW has helped provide money and resources for the USSF, the first time in decades that the union has associated itself so closely with the activist left.

WHILE IT'S unclear how many rank-and-file autoworkers will be among the USSF attendees, the union's participation has helped link organized labor to the event. The Metropolitan Detroit AFL-CIO is backing the USSF, along with several union locals. The Farm Labor Organizing Committee is expected to have a major presence.

Featured at Socialism

Hear Lee Sustar at Socialism 2010 in Chicago, speaking on a panel discussion "Rebuilding a Fighting Labor Movement" with Sal Rosselli of the National Union of Healthcare Workers. Check out the Socialism 2010 Web site for more details. See you at Socialism!

Like the international and national gatherings of the World Social Forum movement, the USSF, which had its first gathering in Atlanta in 2007, will bring together a diverse array of organizations and activists focused on issues from war, racism, immigration, economic and environmental justice, workers rights and all forms of oppression.

Linking the two events are a network of Detroit labor activists like Frank Hammer, many of them UAW members and retirees, who argue that the crisis of the auto industry provides an opportunity for a new green industrialization--the conversion of auto factories. As Hammer, who retired from GM's Powertrain plant in Warren, Mich., about four years ago, said:

You have all these idled plants, closed plants, people laid off, so the question is: Going forward is, what do we do?

We're saying that along with this crisis of unemployment among autoworkers and manufacturing workers in particular, we have another crisis looming, and that's got to do with climate change. And climate change is going to take a global effort--cooperation around the world--to find means to rapidly stop contributing to carbon emissions to create greenhouse gasses. It's going to make the oil spill in the Gulf look like a picnic compared to what it's going to do around the globe.

So we're saying: Let's use these manufacturing facilities to make efficient buses, high-speed rail and mass transit to replace the automobile as we know it. You might have some electric cars, but most people are not going to be able to afford an electric car for the foreseeable future. We ought to do something for mass transit, green energy and [wind] turbines. We ought to use the facilities that we have to employ the workers who are not working.

Hammer and the Autoworkers Caravan are bringing those proposals to the USSF with a workshop titled, "Converge 2 Convert: Job Creation, Industrial Policy & Climate Change." Significantly, the UAW is itself sponsoring workshops, including one on Toyota and another on labor-community alliances in the South, where the union is attempting to organize non-union plants owned by companies outside the U.S. The UAW is also opening up a downtown building to be used by the USSF.

Dianne Feely, a retired member of UAW Local 235, which represents American Axle workers in Detroit, has been active in both organizing against concessions in the UAW and building the USSF through the local organizing committee. She's working to bring as many UAW members to the USSF as possible.

"I hope that rank and filers will see the interconnectedness of issues, that environment and jobs and the war all fit together--how U.S. foreign policy fits together with domestic policy," she said, adding that she hopes workers pick up "a kind of an attitude--that we're not going to be handed anything by nice politicians, but that we have to build or rebuild movements."

In a labor movement where business as usual has led to a long series of defeats--especially in Detroit--the unions' connections with the USSF are timely and important. As U.S. workers endure the effects of the perhaps worst job market since the 1930s, it's time to renew the connections between labor and he left that gave birth to the UAW and other militant, powerful unions of that era.

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