The UAW vs. the auto workers

The United Auto Workers union held its 36th Constitutional Convention in Detroit last week. The meeting had three basic purposes: first, to install a new layer of hand-picked, right-wing union executives to replace those who are retiring; second, to impose a hefty dues increase on the membership; and third, to reassure the auto companies and the ruling class as a whole that the UAW will continue to help slash wages and benefits, impose speedup and increase corporate profits.

In every respect, the four-day affair exhibited the antidemocratic, bureaucratic and anti-working class character of the organization. The gathering would hardly have been noticed by rank-and-file auto workers except for the fact that the delegates voted to increase membership dues by 25 percent.

In his farewell address, outgoing UAW President Bob King summed up the class interests served by the UAW, telling the assembly of cheering delegates, “We want to show and demonstrate, which we do every day, that having a union workforce is a competitive advantage, not a competitive disadvantage.”

Since the early 1980s, when the UAW was first brought onto the board of directors of Chrysler and officially adopted the corporatist program of labor-management “partnership,” the UAW has openly functioned to police the workers and provide the auto bosses with a reliable supply of cheap labor.

With the assistance of the UAW, the Detroit-based automakers have shut down at least 200 factories across the country and eliminated more than a million jobs since 1979. This process accelerated in the mid-2000s and particularly after the financial crash six years ago. Since 2007, the “competitive advantage” of a UAW-organized workforce has allowed the Detroit automakers to reduce labor costs by 30 percent, down to the level at nonunion factories operated by Asian and European carmakers in the US.

The loss of membership—which has fallen from 1.5 million in 1979 to 388,000 today—has led to a financial crisis for the UAW apparatus, prompting several auto executives to express concern over the possible demise of the organization. Next year matters will get even worse for the UAW executives, as thousands of GM, Ford and Chrysler workers in Michigan gain the option to stop paying dues under the state’s new “right-to-work” law, which ends mandatory payment of dues at unionized workplaces.

King’s plan to gain new dues-paying members by signing sweetheart deals, behind the backs of the workers, with the Asian- and European-owned plants on US soil backfired earlier this year when VW workers in Chattanooga, Tennessee responded to a joint company-UAW unionization drive by voting “no.”

Faced with the danger that workers will vote against the UAW with their feet and wallets, incoming UAW President Dennis Williams, who was installed without even the pretense of a democratic vote by the membership, tacked onto his thoroughly right-wing acceptance speech a bit of demagogy. “It’s time for each and every one of us to tell our corporations: ‘No more concessions, we are tired of it, enough is enough,’” he said.

This was uttered by a man who has functioned for more than three decades as a tool of big business and the Democratic Party. His main claim to fame is having negotiated the UAW’s original two-tier wage contract at Caterpillar in 2004. He currently sits on the board of directors of truck manufacturer Navistar.

Williams spelled out the pro-corporate, nationalist and pro-imperialist perspective of the UAW, boasting that he, his wife and his son were all US Marines. “I believe in a strong defense so we can defend our nation against foreign aggression,” he declared.

Affirming his support for the austerity policies backed by both big-business parties, Williams added, “I believe in a balanced budget.” He added that the UAW would continue to “get out the vote” for the Democrats, who, under President Obama, have overseen the greatest transfer of wealth to the super-rich in US history.

The transformation of the UAW into an arm of the corporations and the state exemplifies the evolution of the trade unions as a whole, not only in the US, but internationally. Whether in Greece, France, Brazil, South Korea or South Africa, the unions function to suppress and undermine working-class resistance and defend the profit system, upon which the income and privileges of the union executives depend.

This demonstrates that the collapse of the unions is not simply the product of corrupt individuals, but the result of more profound, objective causes.

The UAW emerged out of the industrial upheavals and political radicalization of the Great Depression era. Those who spearheaded the sit-down strikes and other class battles that established the union were for the most part left-wing militants and socialist-minded workers who saw the industrial organization of the working class as a step toward the building of an independent political movement of workers to fight for socialism.

The UAW leadership under Walter Reuther opposed this course and subordinated the working class to the Democratic Party. After World War II, Reuther led an anticommunist purge of the unions, consolidating them on the basis of the defense of the profit system and support for American imperialism. The right-wing purge of the unions ultimately sealed their fate.

By the 1980s, the growth of transnational production thoroughly undermined the nationalist and pro-capitalist program of the UAW. In the face of the historic decline of American capitalism, the UAW abandoned any defense of the working class and openly collaborated in the destruction of working-class living standards.

The mounting struggles of workers today against austerity, unemployment and wage cutting pit them not only against the corporations and the government, but also against the unions. The development of a fight to defend jobs and living standards can be taken forward only if workers build new organizations of industrial and political struggle.

The demands made by unions around the world that they sacrifice to make “their” corporations more competitive and profitable must be rejected. Under conditions of globalized production, auto workers need to adopt a genuine program of internationalism to unite workers all over the world to defend the social right to a secure job and a decent standard of living.

The working class needs a new political program, one that is diametrically opposed to the UAW’s. The growth of poverty at one pole of society and vast riches at the other demonstrates the failure of the capitalist system and the need for workers to fight for a socialist alternative.