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This Wheel's on Fire: Sleek Little UAW iStrikes

This fall there were two strikes by the United Auto Workers, but even in industrial Michigan, I fear they came and went too fast to register a cultural impact.

Mike Mosher

This wheel's on fire
Rolling down the road
Just notify my next of kin
This wheel shall explode

--Bob Dylan

Were you there, or did you blink and it was over? This fall there were two strikes by the United Auto Workers (UAW), but even in industrial Michigan, I fear they came and went too fast to register a cultural impact. Unless, like a flash mob, their short time span is part of their appeal. Maybe “small” is beautiful (and effective), as in some notable contemporary manufactured products beyond Detroit cars, trucks and SUVs.

During my boyhood, union labor was a major presence, and there were frequent strikes at America’s four (later three) automakers. Republican Presidents and legislators might not be cozy with organized labor, but accepted it as a fact of life and would never want to be accused of union-busting. When a Detroit News staff artist drew Beatle haircuts on prominent Detroiters, the list included UAW President Walter Reuther as well as Ford and Chrysler heirs. Then came the wildcat strikes of the Black Action Movement and Revolutionary Action Movement; whose significance I heard celebrated later in a Marxist study group. Then America’s de-industrializing, and capital’s steady assaults against the working class.

In this century, Michigan saw two years of shuddering decline, then bankruptcy from GM-affiliated partsmaker Delphi, accompanied by a steady shedding of jobs at GM. In September 24, 2007, the UAW called a strike against General Motors corporation, shutting down its automobile and truck plants across the United States

Nevertheless, I made a mental note that in a couple of days I'd take two dozen donuts or bagels, plus individually bottled fruit juices, to the folks marching in front of our local plant. Maybe there would be cool benefits held at area rock n’ roll bars like Indian Barry's or Whites', where local bands and hip-hop acts would perform in solidarity with the brothers and sisters standing up for working people's rights. I contemplated organizing some sort of artist's brigade, or benefit exhibition and art sale. Two-minute caricatures for a $20 donation to the Strike Fund. Who’s organizing Best White Moustache contests, celebrating UAW chairman Ron Gettlefinger's distinguishing facial characteristic? I was ready for this strike to be a celebration.

Kirk W. Fuoss’ 1997 book Striking Performances, Performing Strikes tells of the UAW of the 1930s articulating their agendas with plays, pantomimes, musical parodies which everybody could dance to, all enjoyed and supported by the autoworkers’ spouses and families, and neighborhoods and communities around them. I wanted some of this theater and spectacle. I’m waiting for Lefty!

Perhaps I spent too much time listening to San Francisco waterfront veterans of the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU) talk about that city’s 1934 general strike. So I delightedly expected the announced UAW strike against GM to snowball into a Michigan general strike, unionization of Wal-Mart, universal health care, collapse of the Bush-Cheney government, reversal of global warming, free beer, etc. etc. ...

But I blinked, and it was all over.

In less than two days the strike was called off, for an agreement had been reached between the union and GM. Though for long this was something that stuck in the craw of labor on principle, the proposed contract agreed upon on September 26th called for a two-tier wage structure, where existing workers remain at $28 an hour, while temporary and non-manufacturing workers get $18 an hour.

Agreement was reached on retiree health care, allowing a very relieved General Motors to write off a $51 billion liability in health care costs, which some analysts claim will save the company about $900 for each vehicle it produces. Yet approval by the Securities and Exchange Commission could take two years, though it was soon ratified by a majority of about two thirds of the 74,000 rank and file workers

Some writers worry about the Voluntary Employee Benefit Plan (VEBA), for that "voluntary" seems as inviting as George Bush's 2005 plan for Social Security. General Motors will put $38 billion of cash, debt, equity and property into the fund, which is projected optimistically to last eighty years. Such a fund requires savvy management to get the best return possible out of the stock market, which is volatile and somewhat risky even under the best of economic conditions. But what if the stock market tanks? Many of us would have preferred GM using this strike to push for single-payer health care system, but economism prevailed and they narrowed their focus to only what was best for the UAW old-timer.

Tim Skubick, a Michigan capitol correspondent who hosts a state politics talk show "On the Record" on public television, said that if nothing else the strike made organized labor feel good about itself again. Political action as personal therapy.

By the end of the first week of October, talks that had begun in the summer were heating up with Chrysler, the 82-year-old company that is the smallest of the Detroit automakers. In 1997, a UAW strike shut down one Chrysler plant for a month, and a strike took placeduring 1985 contract talks. Five of the corporation’s plants are idled already because of excessive inventory and weak sales, including three in the Detroit area, so no need to picket there. Supposedly Chrysler dealer’s sit on a 71-day supply of cars and trucks on their lots, so the company only feared a strike that would last a month or more.

The UAW imposed a deadline for Wednesday, October 10th. The deadline reached without a tentative contract agreement, at 11 a.m. autoworkers in 19 Chrysler plants--where 45,00 workers are represented by the UAW--walked off the job. The UAW wanted the company’s payment to a trust run by the union that would handle about $18 billion in retiree health care costs, something that GM agreed to on Sept. 26th. The union wanted Chrysler to pledg to keep US factories running and not farm out parts manufacturing to cheap non-union shops. The company wanted the UAW to grant the same health care cost concessions (higher copayments) that it did to GM and Ford in 2005.

Making things shiftier is the fact that shortly after contract talks began in July, Chrysler was purchased by Cerberus Capital Management--not car people but money men--and is no longer a publicly-held corporation. First, Daimler AG (formerly DaimlerChrysler AG) sold its controlling stake in Chrysler to Cerberus in August. Some think Cerberus wants to make Chrysler profitable quickly, by any means necessary, then sell it at a big profit.

Whatever. Even shorter than the GM strike, the union and the company reached an agreement by mid-afternoon that Wednesday, and the six hour Chrysler strike was over.

An October 16th newspaper headline mentioned a “vocal minority” opposed to the Chrysler settlement. As the month progressed news stories told of a number of plants’ locals voting against the contract. Seventy-two percent of Local 685 Kokomo Transmission rejected the deal. UAW officers travelled around to convince rank and file skeptics. Perhaps a progressive remnant felt that a two-tier schedule (what George Orwell’s novel Animal Farm called “Some animals more equal than others”) was just plain wrong, wrong, wrong, and opposed to what labor organization stands for.

The website Soldiers of Solidarity, rich with of links to articles and workers’ blogs, urges “Vote No Until You Know the Whole Truth”, excorciates “UAW ARM TWISTING!!!” and publishes both the UAW Chrysler Council’s Minority Report and pages from contract. In his Live Bait and Ammo column, veteran labor writer Gregg Shotwell points out the words “Two tier” appear nowhere in the 2007 UAW Bargaining Convention Report, and the very concept was denounced from the floor by delegates. Shotwell goes on to dissect the VEBA as a money laundering scheme.

And what agreement will be reached between the UAW and Ford Motor Company, family-held and hemorrhaging red ink ($12.6 billion in 2006)? MSNBC reports that “Ford and UAW agree in principal on further job cuts”, as many Ford plants are running unprofitably at only 55 to 79 per cent capacity. The company announced 16 plants will close by 2012. Yet skeptical workers have begun analyzing the pamphlet about the GM contract circulated by the UAW at Ford plants.

Raking leaves on the front lawn, I ran into a guy I’ve known since gradeschool, laid off from a manufacturing job at Eaton Corpoation two years ago (a few months before they closed his plant entirely), so asked him what he thought of the strikes. He only shrugged, mumbled a pseudo-philosophical comment about how the government loots the treasury so why not the auto executives, evincing no solidarity whatsoever with the UAW and its issues.

I never worked in a factory, but have been a union member at a San Francisco Art Commission job (SEIU) and as faculty at a state university (MEA). My university library apparently has nothing of local labor history; I’ve thought of organizing a class through our Lifelong Learning Institute to draw retired works to tell stories. So from a distance, I’m worried that the experience of a strong industrial union, striking when negotiations fail, is separate, hidden and alienated from the experience of the rest of the population of a state whose economic base rests so heavily on industry. Strikes should last long enough to get people’s attention, encourage sympathy strikes in solidarity, and impact daily life.

These are nanostrikes, each one smaller than its predecessor. Like the Apple iPod Nano, the UAW’s strikes for the 2007 season are elegant and functional, coninually miniturized into smaller packages. Like the iPod, they are not exactly collective experiences. Like the iPhone, their exclusivity adds to their desirability. The two-tier agreements that were reached insulate the long-term worker from the harsh sufferings of others around her or him, much as the Apple appliance blocks out society’s audio harshness. The strikes carry the imprimatur of an organization with a reputation for being progressive, but don’t look too closely. Welcome to the era of the iStrike.

Sources: Rick Haglund, Times News Service, and Robert Schoenberger, Newhouse News Service, Bay City (MI) Times, September 30th, 2007; The Associated Press, October 10th, 2007; Michelle Maynard, New York Times, October 11, 2007; Eric Morath & Louis Aguilar, Detroit News, October 24, 2007.
Thanks to Zack Furness for editorial suggestions.

Mike Mosher stamps pixels on the Bad Subjects Assembly Line.

Copyright © Mike Mosher 2007. Graphic from American Heritage magazine, 1987; color by Bad Subjects. All rights reserved.