Put the backbone back in the UAW

October 12, 2015

Last month, workers at Chrysler--a part of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA)--rejected a tentative contract agreement recommended by the United Auto Workers (UAW) International leadership by a wide margin of 65 percent. Among the issues at stake was the continuation of a two-tier wage arrangement and dissatisfaction with the UAW leadership after it lied to union members about some of the terms of the previous contract. A threatened strike was called off just before the October 7 deadline.

On October 9, UAW leaders approved another tentative four-year agreement. If ratified by the 40,000 UAW members at Chrysler, UAW leaders claim the new deal will gradually eliminate the two-tier wage structure--after eight years on the job, which is four years longer than the length of the proposed new deal. Rank-and-file workers are examining the agreement to see how much has really changed. Gregg Shotwell, a retired autoworker from General Motors and Delphi and author of Autoworkers Under the Gun: Live Bait & Ammo, looks at the background to the contract and what's at stake for Chrysler workers.

UAW MEMBERS want equal pay for equal work and an eight-hour day. But outsiders like UAW President Dennis Williams and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles CEO Sergio Marchionne want to persuade them to sell themselves short. Williams actually insinuated that workers may "lose a paycheck or a home," if they strike. How so?

The UAW raised dues last year in order to shore up the strike fund. Members should demand double strike pay. After so many years of raises for UAW officials and wage cuts for workers, members deserve a handsome return on their investment in the UAW. Instead, weak-kneed outsiders like Dennis Williams stir up fear and disillusionment. Don't get distracted by the chicken dance--whiskey tango foxtrot! [WTF!]

The chicken dance is a time-honored concession bargaining tradition. When the rank and file refuses to accept a chicken-feed contract, the company-union makes threats. Here's an excerpt from an old Live Bait & Ammo newsletter: "Management is ticked about the trouncing they took when rank-and-file workers crushed the company's hopes for more concessions. So bosses, company and union, started cranking a chicken dance tune on the old organ grinder to see how many chickens they could get to self-pluck. (WTF!)"

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles CEO Sergio Marchionne (left) with UAW President Dennis Williams
Fiat Chrysler Automobiles CEO Sergio Marchionne (left) with UAW President Dennis Williams (UAW)

UAW office-rats who are guaranteed a pension with COLA and who will never be subjected to the precariousness of health care co-ops, the injustice of alternative work schedules (AWS), and threats of zero tolerance for sickness have the audacity to tell workers: You don't understand. A strike could cost your home, your car, your life's savings.

We don't understand? The double-talkers don't realize that second-tier workers rent, drive used cars, and don't have a pot to wish over, let alone save in.

UAW PRESIDENT Dennis Williams, the consummate outsider, who looks joyous in brotherly-hug photos with CEO Sergio Marchionne, cautioned UAW members at FCA that "outside groups like to stir people up."

Does Williams believe rank-and-file autoworkers and UAW retirees are outsiders? Is he that insulated from life on the line? When was the last time that Williams was denied relief to go to the rest room? Does Williams worry about making ends meet--paycheck to paycheck? Hell no. The union pays his expense account, his no-deductible insurance, his pension with COLA, his car note and $153,000 in salary.

David Barkholz at the Automotive News reported, "A UAW strike of FCA could cost the Detroit automaker close to $1 billion a week in lost revenue and would quickly lead to a shortage of several hot-selling vehicles."

Do you think CEO Sergio Marchionne doesn't know what will happen to his $72 million plus expenses if FCA loses one billion bucks next week?

No one on the UAW International Executive Board (IEB) works for a second-tier wage, with no hope of a pension. No one on the IEB has to work while they are sick or injured. No one on the IEB has to wonder how they can afford health care. Who are the real outsiders?

Dennis Williams is ready to play the intimidation card. He counts on a short strike to soften up members and convince them he is a fighter. But Williams is the one who stands to lose nothing but his cozy relationship with the boss.

UAW President Ron Gettelfinger pulled this crap in 2007. He put GM workers on strike and told the press, "No one wins a strike." He waved the white hanky before we even shut down an assembly line. The next day we were back to work and members ratified the worse contract in UAW history. Someone did win that strike: GM won two-tier. GM split the union. Let it be a lesson.

Gettelfinger lied. Everything the UAW ever gained was won by a strike.

Don't be misled. Don't put confidence in people who desire to con you into thinking concessions save jobs. Concessions have not saved one single job. That's not my opinion. It's history.

VOTING "NO" isn't enough. Demands must be clear and non-negotiable. An old-timer suggested workers circulate a declaration--not a petition--signed by as many rank-and-file members as possible. A declaration addressed not to the leadership, but to the membership--the insiders, the ones whose work makes or breaks the bottom line. A declaration workers write themselves and agree to themselves without interference from outsiders like Norwood Jewell, the UAW-VP, who claims that the promise to cap two-tier was a typo.

We need a straightforward declaration along the lines of: "We the undersigned will vote NO on any contract that divides us. We will vote NO on any contract that prevents tier two from reaching top tier wages and benefits. We will vote NO on any contract that devises new tiers. We will vote NO on any contract that does not eliminate AWS or refuses to pay over time after eight hours. We will vote NO on any contract that does not provide paid sick days or punishes workers for excusable absences. We will vote no on any contract that doesn't guarantee our jobs. We want COLA not profit sharing. The only thing that will win ratification is justice and equality. And if FCA threatens to move work out of the country, we will shut production down NOW."

The purpose of the declaration is to build consensus and solid commitment among the rank and file, to demonstrate solidarity, and overcome the individual fragmentation that Concession Caucus leaders foster with multiple tiers and isolated fears. We need a collective bargaining agreement, not a divisive bargaining agreement. We want a contract based on solidarity and we believe workers inside and outside the UAW want the same things we do.

A worker-to-worker effort, rather than a top-down command, may have the power to galvanize workers against the assault organized by trained concession bargainers.

Secondly, we have to make sure the ratification vote isn't rigged.

Another old-timer, now retired, who I'll call "Jack Axle," since he still fears repercussions, told me that back in the early 1980s, he and some coworkers noticed that the vote count never added up. The local Administrative Caucus always got more votes than the number of members who actually went to the meetings or ballot boxes. All the votes, even for motions at the membership meetings, in UAW Local 634 in Buffalo, New York, were secret ballot.

They realized that secret ballots were rigged. They wanted New York state-regulated voting machines. They figured the only way to win was to outnumber the administration at the meeting and to surprise them.

They gathered their forces. At the next union meeting, they made a motion to replace secret paper ballots with voting machines. As usual, the local union officers began collecting secret paper ballots for the motion. A couple of the dissidents noticed that one of the officials who was collecting ballots had something suspicious sticking out of her back pocket. They picked her pocket. It was full of precast ballots.

The dissidents outnumbered the Administrative Caucus. They jumped up, blocked the doors, guarded the perimeter, and said, "No one leaves until we have a stand-up vote."

Robert's Rules of Order be damned. When you have the numbers, you rule. The highest authority at a UAW meeting is the membership. That's in the UAW Constitution, but more importantly, it's the law of the American playground.

The leadership was frightened. They tried to end the meeting. The members shouted them down with a deafening voice vote. The officials threatened to call the cops. No one backed down. Go ahead, they said. When the police arrived they asked, "What's the problem?" When the police understood that it was an internal union matter, they said, "It's none of our business." The cops drove away.

After the police left, the Administrative Caucus had no choice but to follow the will of the majority of members. They held a stand-up vote. The "Yeas" stood on one side of the hall and the "Nays" stood on the other. It was abundantly clear, three to one, that the secret ballot was defeated.

In Indianapolis, UAW Local 23 was pressured by the International to vote for a concession contract that the local refused to even bargain for. The IEB demanded a mail-in secret ballot. Members were suspicious. So instead of mailing in their ballots individually, they went to the union hall, voted "no" collectively and had their picture taken with a sign that declared "I Voted No." The no votes were tallied and mailed all together at the post office. The rank and file rigged the vote for an honest open ratification. The contract was defeated.

As the late Jerry Tucker, a former UAW-IEB member and founder of the UAW New Directions Movement, once said, "It's time to make that line in the sand a trench. It's time to put the backbone back in the UAW." The strike shouldn't end until equal pay and an eight-hour day is ratified. One union, one tier.

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