The Ford vote and the UAW’s defenders

By Jerry White
9 November 2009

Last week’s defeat of Ford concessions contract—by a margin of 22,136 to 7,816—was a massive repudiation of the United Auto Workers by the rank-and-file, and a sign of the growing hostility and opposition of workers to this pro-company organization.

The “No” vote was a historic event—the first rejection of a national auto contract recommended by the UAW since 1982 and at Ford since 1976. It is, however, only an initial step.

Within hours of announcing the defeat, top UAW executives pledged to work with Ford on a daily basis to “insure that they maintain the highest levels of quality and productivity” and "remain competitive.” This can only mean the UAW intends to force through the concessions on a plant-by-plant basis using the threat of factory closings and mass layoffs.

Ford workers must draw the implications of their own actions. A struggle in defense of jobs and living standards will not be carried out by the UAW—which is no less an enemy of workers than are the corporations and the Obama administration—but against it, through the creation of new organizations of working class struggle.

In the aftermath of the “No” vote, various middle class organizations, which like to posture as “left” and even socialist, have insisted that any resistance of workers must be channeled through the UAW. Contrary to all evidence, these groups claim that the UAW can be reformed and its leadership forced to respond to the needs of the organization’s members.

A “resounding NO vote would be the first step to re-building the UAW as a union that fights for its members and all working people,” claimed one leaflet signed by two supporters of Solidarity, a self-described “socialist, feminist and anti-racist organization.” The two are also former executive board members of UAW Local 600 at the Ford Rouge plant in Dearborn, Michigan.

“Rank and file UAW activists should use the momentum and sense of victory that this has given us to begin building the kind of movement that can turn the UAW into a fighting trade union,” declares another statement, written by a supporter of Socialist Alternative and a UAW official at the St. Paul, Minnesota Ford plant. The program for “rebuilding the UAW,” should include the fight for a “publicly funded green jobs program” and the nationalization of the auto industry, they wrote.

“Perhaps this is the beginning of a new workers revolution, one that will gain the respect of those that negotiate on their behalf and redefine the direction of the UAW,” wrote a another local official at the Ford-Mazda plant in Flat Rock, Michigan, in a column featured on the Labor Notes web site.

The natural question that arises upon reading these statements is: What “UAW” are these people talking about?

What evidence can they present that shows the UAW is anything other than a right-wing appendage of the corporations and the state?

In 1937, the exiled socialist leader Leon Trotsky argued that the American Federation of Labor, despite its treacherous and pro-capitalist leadership, could still be defined as a “workers organization” because “within certain limits it leads a struggle of the workers for an increase—or at least against a diminution—of their share of the national income.” Should the AFL leaders, Trotsky wrote, “defend the income of the bourgeoisie from attacks on the part of the workers; should they conduct a struggle against strikes, against the raising of wages, against help to the unemployed; then we would have an organization of scabs, and not a trade union.”

This is exactly what the UAW has done over the last three decades. On the basis of the program of “labor-management partnership” and “Buy American” nationalism, it has functioned as a labor police force for the employers, isolating and betraying every struggle against plant closings, mass layoffs and concessions.

As a result of the suppression of working class resistance by the UAW and the AFL-CIO, the richest one percent of the population saw its share of national income more than double—from 9 to 20 percent—since 1979.

With the multi-billion VEBA retiree health care trust fund, it has been transformed into a business, complete with Wall Street advisers and a substantial ownership stake at all three Detroit automakers.

Its top administrators—far from being responsive to pressure from below—have a direct financial incentive to extract ever greater levels of profit from UAW members in order to boost the value of their shareholdings. These executives have seen their salaries and perks increase, even as the membership of the organizations and the wages of auto workers have sharply declined.

The UAW is widely hated and despised by the workers. Yet the supposed "lefts" and "progressives" instinctively defend the UAW and declare illegitimate any action by workers independent of the union apparatus. This says more about the class character of these organizations than any of their left-sounding phrases.

In the 1960s and 1970s, when the unions were still looked upon by workers, despite their hostility to the union bureaucracy, as organizations that they could use to defend their interests, when major class battles were waged via these organizations, the middle class groups were utterly indifferent and even openly hostile to the trade unions.

At the time they generally labeled the "white working class” as racist and identified the majority of union workers with the reactionary politics of leaders like AFL-CIO President George Meany. Meanwhile, they attacked the Workers League, the forerunner of the Socialist Equality Party, for intervening in union struggles and seeking to build a socialist leadership and mobilize the rank-and-file against the bureaucracy and its alliance with the Democratic Party.

Only during and after the decisive decade of the 1980s—when the UAW and AFL-CIO turned to corporatism, helped impose concessions and mass layoffs and betrayed one strike after another—did they orient their activities to the unions, become their most enthusiastic boosters and increasingly integrate themselves into the union hierarchy. That is to say, when the social character of the unions became more openly anti-working class, and any democratic impulse from the workers was extinguished, at precisely that point these groups became the champions of the unions.

Far from “reforming” the unions, the influx of the “dissidents” and “lefts” into various positions in the labor apparatus has not had the slightest impact. The right-wing politics of the AFL-CIO—the promotion of nationalism and chauvinism, defense of US imperialism and its wars, and support for the Democratic Party—has not lessened.

Time and time again the ex-radicals sought to boost illusions in one faction of the UAW or another in order to provide supposed proof of the possibility of reforming the organization. One of their past favorites was UAW Vice President Bob King himself, the architect of the Ford concessions who was booed off the stage by rank-and-file workers during the vote.

Their promotion of the UAW today is part of a general lurch to the right by middle class groups, who have lined up behind the Obama administration and the interests of US imperialism. The subordination of the working class to the so-called "unions" is a very critical issue for America’s ruling elite, under conditions of an historic crisis of the capitalist system and an emerging revival of working class militancy and political radicalization.

The “No” vote by the Ford workers is a harbinger of the return of great class battles. The way forward for auto workers and every section of the working class is a decisive break with these reactionary organizations and the building of new organs of industrial and political struggle based on the political independence of the working class, internationalism and socialism.

This is what the middle class groups fear and oppose.

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