Striking Volvo workers in Virginia dig in for long battle as truck manufacturer announces Q1 profits

Nearly 3,000 workers at Volvo Trucks North America’s New River Valley (NRV) assembly plant in Dublin, Virginia have entered their second week on strike against the Sweden-based multinational. Although the corporate media has largely blacked out their struggle, striking workers are determined to win back wage and benefit concessions granted over the last three contracts by the United Auto Workers (UAW) union.

Striking Volvo workers (Source: Facebook UAW Local 2069)

Volvo Group reported higher first-quarter revenue and profits last Friday, as truck and construction equipment deliveries increased along with demand for other products and services. The company made $1 billion in profits in the first three months of 2021, compared with $560 million a year earlier. Truck deliveries rose to 52,444, from 44,765 during the same period in 2020, and construction equipment sales rose by 53 percent year-over-year. This led first quarter revenue to rise to $11.1 billion, up from $10.8 billion in Q1 in 2020. At the same time, first quarter profit margins jumped from 8.1 percent in 2020 to 12.8 percent.

“In summary, strong good quarter and very interesting times ahead,” Volvo CEO Martin Lundstedt boasted during a meeting with large investors and financial analysts. Lundstedt, who made $5.2 million in compensation last year, is engaged in a global cost-cutting campaign to boost returns to investors. During the first quarter, the company had 2,079 fewer white-collar workers in research and development than it did a year ago.

The strike is the first at NRV since the eight-week walkout in 2008, which was isolated and betrayed by the UAW, leading to the imposition of a two-tier wage system and other givebacks. As the WSWS has detailed, the top UAW officials who negotiated the contracts in 2008, 2011 and 2016, were found guilty or implicated in the massive corruption scandal, which included taking company bribes and embezzling union dues. The union official in charge of the negotiations now is UAW Secretary Treasurer Ray Curry, a protégé of Gary Casteel, who oversaw the 2016 UAW-Volvo deal and then became a “cooperating witness” in the Justice Department investigation. Curry, who has a $236,000 salary, oversaw the betrayal of the 2019 Mack-Volvo strike.

Expressing the widespread distrust of the UAW, rank-and-file workers on social media have been circulating the WSWS article on who negotiated the previous contracts and have demanded that negotiations with the company be live-streamed. The company and UAW have defied the will of workers and resumed their secret talks Monday.

Several veteran workers at Volvo NRV spoke with the WSWS Autoworker Newsletter on the issues in their struggle and the newsletter’s call for workers to form an independent rank-and-file negotiating and strike committee to take the conduct of the struggle into their own hands. Their names are withheld to prevent retaliation.

One worker said, “To me a picket line is something that you celebrate in a certain sense because we have already made the hard decision to strike, we’ve already ripped the band-aid off. The company didn’t come back with anything reasonable after a month’s extension [of the previous contract], then it’s got to get better by striking. It sucks having to go on strike, not getting a paycheck. But we’re not helping the company build any trucks. We were willing to train and to learn new techniques. We even took cuts and risked our lives during COVID-19 before there was any vaccine. You can’t just keep taking and taking, contract after contract, while you’re making money hand over fist.”

Much of the truck manufacturing industry, including the NRV plant, was forced to shut down after a wave of wildcat strikes by autoworkers in Michigan, Ohio and Indiana in mid-March 2020 against efforts by the corporations and the UAW to keep production going even as COVID-19 swept through the plants. The company set up a Crisis Management Team with the assistance of UAW Local 2069 to reopen the plant despite the continued spread of the deadly virus.

“The company said they were going to meet all the standards and do this and that and we’d all be safe because they talked to the health department and so on,” the worker said. “You know what they did? They put up some plastic barriers in the breakroom area between the seats on picnic tables. That’s all they did. They didn’t even clean them. Someone left a piece of paper on one of the tables just to see if it would get moved and it never did.”

This resulted in a massive spread of COVID-19 at the plant. “I’d say at least a third of the plant has gotten it, maybe more. A friend of mine was hospitalized and on a ventilator. She is out of the hospital, but she still carries an oxygen tank with her. She hasn’t been back to work and it’s been several months. I know someone else who caught it and was on a ventilator for three weeks. I personally got COVID, and I know I got it here. I’m always at work and live alone. I don’t even have a dog so I didn’t get it from a damn dog. So, you tell me where I got it? It was from work.

“The six feet thing is violated everywhere. There’s almost no place where there aren’t people working side-by-side. The majority of people work on the [assembly] line, people are on both sides of the truck frame as it moves down the line. A truck frame resting on its side is 24 or maybe 30 inches wide; it isn’t six feet wide, and you have people working on both sides of it. You don’t have six feet of distance between them unless they take turns, which is what they did to begin with. They were only running 30 trucks and you could space it out like that. But as soon as they increased production, that all went away.”

Another worker described how veteran workers want better pay and benefits for new hires and those with less seniority, who under the current UAW contract, typically earn $10 less per hour and have bare-bones health and retirement benefits, if any. “I believe everybody feels that way, all of the people prior to them too. I believe 99 percent of them would tell you the same thing.”

Workers have told the WSWS that there is a concerted effort by the company, with the assistance of the UAW to drive the “core group” of higher-paid veteran workers out of the plant and replace them with lower paid workers.

Commenting on the UAW corruption scandal and the involvement of several top officials who handed Volvo deep concessions over the last three contracts, the worker said, “They got caught with their hand in the cookie jar. It’s something I’ve been complaining about for years. I believed there was a problem back then.” The worker said all of the contracts signed by these corrupt officials “should have been invalidated. By the time we found out, the contracts were over or close to it. But the repercussions from them, the losses we took were still there.”

She then related a story about a worker who confronted a UAW International official, demanding that the union pay him back for all the wage and benefit givebacks the workers suffered. “There was a core group worker who made a stink a while back when a representative from the UAW International came to discuss the expansion of the NRV facility. He told the International representative that the expansion plans sound all well and good, ‘but I’ve got some numbers for you.’ The worker said ‘take seven dollars per hour times five days per week times 52 weeks per year times 10 years; the bottom line is I believe you owe us each around $200,000. I know the money is gone, so I want a Volvo truck. They run about 200-grand, right?’ That’s what the worker said. ‘We should each get a truck for our sacrifices.’”

Referring to huge profits the billionaires have made while more than 3 million have died worldwide and nearly 600,000 in the US, she said, “The greedy are just getting greedier and greedier. They say a rich man never gets numb.” The worker then asked about the call of the WSWS and the Autoworker Newsletter for rank-and-file committees to coordinate an international working-class counteroffensive.

“Tell me something: You all are trying to do something where the employees instead of just having the unions represent them, the employees would have more direct input, can you explain that to me?”

This reporter explained that workers needed to build rank-and-file committees because the UAW and other unions have long abandoned any of the functions traditionally associated with “unions” and had become the direct tools of management, which lower workers’ income in the name of making companies “more competitive” and profitable. The worker was enthusiastic to learn that rank-and-file GM workers in Mexico, in opposition to the unions, had refused to work overtime during the 2019 GM strike in the United States and had won widespread support from American workers after they were victimized. The need for the international unity of the working class is particularly appealing to Volvo strikers since they are confronting a multi-national corporation.