Stand up to a divide-and-conquer contract

November 5, 2015

United Auto Workers (UAW) members at General Motors (GM) are voting this week on a proposed new contract. Like the agreement that UAW leaders reached with Chrysler--which workers voted down only to have union officials pressure them into voting for essentially the same deal--the GM contract would maintain the hated two-tier wage system for the life of the four-year contract. UAW officials are trying to sell the proposal with an unenforceable company promise that the separate pay scales will end after the following contract.

Gregg Shotwell, a retired autoworker from General Motors and Delphi and author of Autoworkers Under the Gun: Live Bait & Ammo, argues why UAW members should take a stand against the many provisions in the contract that gravely undermine union solidarity.

IN NOVEMBER 2008, I retired from GM after 30 years. I drove a forklift my last two years. I was glad for the seat. My feet hurt so bad I couldn't bear to stand anymore. I was a common laborer all my life. I worked in a factory after school and on Saturdays when I was 16. I always liked my coworkers. They were good people.

In my last year at GM, I made $28.33 per hour plus $1.08 Cost-Of-Living-Adjustment (COLA), which equaled $29.41. On top of that, I earned a shift premium of 5 percent for working nights. So I made $30.88 per hour. Plus a pension and health care in retirement.

I retired debt-free. I made it, but I don't understand how a worker can make it today. Something has to change. The only thing I know for sure is that rank-and-file workers are the only folks who can make the change we need.

If the notorious Promise Breakers keep their word, someone who hires in at GM this year might make $29 an hour eight years from now, in 2023. The question rank-and-file UAW members ask themselves today is: what are the odds of that promise coming true?

UAW President Dennis Williams
UAW President Dennis Williams

The question is rhetorical. We already know the answer. A union contract isn't a bet--it's a collective bargaining agreement backed up by a strike threat. But the tentative UAW-GM contract restricts strikes, which is like being handcuffed before you are charged, jailed before you are tried, and beaten before you are questioned. What are your chances of winning that grievance?

That $29 an hour, I'll-love-you-tomorrow promise is less than I made in 2008, 15 years before the rose can even bloom in some ingénue's imagination. To hell with what economists say, we know the cost of living is rising like a helium balloon. Without COLA, workers' income doesn't simply flatline, it drops like an anchor off the coast of Hell's last island.

On top of that, the second tier will never have a retirement to look forward to. With no pension and no health care to count on in retirement, they will work till they die or go out on SSDI [Social Security Disability Income]. That's not a future, it's a life sentence without parole.

THE PROMISE Breakers keep workers on the hook longer than the contract they expect workers to ratify--eight years on a four-year contract. The only thing that belongs on a hook is bait, or a wreck. That's not a promise or a play on words, it's a redneck fact of life.

There is no cap on second tier new hires in the tentative UAW-GM contract. Workers eligible to retire will be motivated by a $60,000 bonus. A basic rule of negotiating is: Beware that wherever there is a bonus there is a hook. Considering how much GM will save every time a top tier worker is replaced with a lower tier, the motivation bonus to retire is an investment with a payoff faster than a Michael Jordan pivot.

Second class citizenship in the UAW will never end if this contract passes. The proud proclamation that "temporaries get a raise" indicates that temp status is here to stay. Propagate and expand, ad infinitum, one tier mounted atop another on the down escalator of union deconstruction, where decline is defined as "progress," and decimation is proclaimed "Solidarity Forever" in air punching speeches pummeled by puff-bags with corks in their butts, cotton in their ears, and five hundred dollar loafers on their baby fat feet.

Workers in the GM Components Holdings group--vital, profitable parts plants--have been corralled into a separate tier, or more precisely, redlined into a ghetto. Only a certain status of GMCH workers will be allowed out into the suburbs of greater GM.

Those workers who are confined to GMCH are condemned to low-class status despite the profits they make for the GM Corps. New buyers won't be required to honor the contract. That fact alone should solicit a solidarity-resounding NO from the entire membership. If we aren't for all, we are only out for self, and we, as a union, are doomed.

It reminds me of growing up in Grand Rapids, MI, a typical northern industrial town that didn't exhibit any typical Jim Crow signs but where the consequences were the same. What did I do wrong, officer? Get out of the car and put your hands behind your back.

Why would any worker in a GMCH plant vote for it? They've been threatened: Keep your mouth shut and your head down unless you want to be on the auction block. And that's coming from the Concession Cons, not the company. Hell, the company goons don't want to get their hands dirty, let alone their tongues.

THE INTERNATIONAL UAW makes a mockery of solidarity, equality and democracy. The UAW Administrative Caucus should be ashamed, but that would require a conscience. They have the con down, that's certain, but there's no science in their scheme. They've been lying so long they believe truth is an accident victim, and deception is an ambulance.

Besides, they get paid. If you have the stomach for it, read the sections in the contract devoted to joint programs, where money from the company goes through the wash-and-rinse cycle of legal jargon and ends up innocent as lint in Con Caucus pockets.

UAW members have to wonder where's the back of this merry-go-round? Where's the Jim Crow section? Or do we all just keep going down, one by one? Segregated, divided, degraded, demeaned.

The status quo is spinning out of control. It may sound good for some of the workers some of the time, but all the workers get jacked around all the time. GM can't even hide all the profits they are making off American workers. No wonder profit sharing stinks like trickle down.

Workers ask themselves why UAW officials get a raise every year. Why salary workers get raises every time they sharpen their pencils. Why executives don't pay for anything out of pocket since expense accounts are unaccountable. When does the press ask the company to justify $200lunches and $800 hotel rooms with room service a fly on the wall would be too shy to eyeball?

The competition isn't overseas, it's in the front office. It's on Wall Street. It's in Congress where insider trading is common as toilet tissue. The CEO tips more for a haircut than a worker pays to take the family out for dinner.

If GM decides to build plants outside of the U.S., as they always threaten, foreign car companies will be eager to fill the vacuum. The solution is to organize, but you can't organize with weak contracts and suck-up attitudes.

The whole capitalist system relies on workers' compliance. We can stop the merry-go-round. We can replace segregation, degradation and the one party dictatorship that passes for democracy in the UAW with solidarity, equality and democracy. It begins with voting NO, and then kicking the parasites out of office.

Start now. Vote NO. Tell them this: First, they came for workers at GMCH, then...Well, I don't have to tell you the story. You know the lesson. You learned it on the American Playground.

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