UAW: Death of a Union?

— Peter Downs

CONTRACT NEGOTIATIONS BETWEEN the United Auto Workers (UAW) and the Big Three automakers in 1993 brought the union to a new low. In the months leading up to an agreement, company and union officials barraged UAW members with claims of corporate poverty. Both predicted a titanic struggle over concessions. But behind closed doors negotiators settled terms amicably. The ink was scarcely dry on the concessionary contracts when Ford and Chrysler announced near-record earnings and executive bonuses. Sales figures for all of the Big Three soared upward at a frenzied pace.

The deception shouldn't have been surprising. Companies always try to inspire fear in their workers. They predict the worst so their employees will accept management's "compromise" with relief.

The UAW administration has the resources and know-how to blow away the specter of disaster. It could reveal the companies' strengths and prepare members for battle. It doesn't. Instead, it follows the Texas Ranger model of unionism—the president and his cowboys ride in to rescue powerless workers from a fearful end.

Workers must believe they are helpless, however, to appreciate their rescue. They must tremble before huge multinational corporations, fearful of being consumed in the frenzy of competition, to appreciate what their leaders do. Then the union president, a John Wayne of a man, can step forward and, with witty arguments and sheer physical presence, stop the companies in their tracks and save the workers.

The Texas Ranger myth makes a pretty model, with only one little drawback: corporate managers know it's an act. They are perfectly willing, however, to let others have their little fantasies. They are even eager to help the UAW administration make-believe.

Company and union officials in 1993 prophesied a long, unsuccessful strike in the face of bankruptcy, wage cuts and a loss of health insurance or pensions, then engaged in mutual back-slapping for adroitly avoiding those virtual disasters. Union members had heard it all before. This time, they greeted the hoopla with a gigantic shrug of indifference. They boycotted the ratification vote in droves.

In the 1970s, 80-90% of members at target companies voted on pattern-setting agreements in auto. Not anymore. Only 40%' of Ford workers voted on the 1993 pattern-setting pact. To many workers, the union had become irrelevant. Despite the scattered nature of opposition, 33% of those who voted cast ballots against the pact. Many who voted "yes" expressed a fatalism that union bureaucrats "were going to do whatever they want anyway."

Officials at Local 879 (St Paul, MN) refused even to entertain questions about the contract after International representatives told them the UAW does not allow contract meetings just so people can debate the agreement. At Local 980 (Norfolk, VA) officials didn't even want to risk debate. They sprang the ratification vote so suddenly that only 177 of 1100 eligible voters cast ballots—about what you'd expect if each officer and appointed union representative brought along a friend or two.

The 1993 agreement may have been the baldest in a long line of concessionary pacts negotiated by the UAW. A GM worker in Bowling Green, KY said "usually they give something to one group while taking away from someone else. This time, they didn't give anything to anybody." They did steal from the future, however. Wages for workers hired after the contract-signing date were cut to 70% of the base rate, and their benefits eliminated. It will take three years for them to reach full rate. Each of the Big Three has a high-seniority work force and expects massive retirements in the next few years. This concession was worth billions to them.

Tall Tales 'Round the Campfire

Officials brazenly depicted other concessions as gains. Union negotiators trumpeted that they held onto fully paid health care, while diverting twenty-two cents an hour of each worker's pay back to the companies to help pay for that health care. At $40 a month, that's nearly the same size co-pay as the American Airlines flight attendants struck against later that year.

Combining losses from the health insurance co-pay and SUB pay means a worker takes a pay cut of nearly $2000 a year. No wonder so many workers were relieved to see only such "gains" instead of whatever horror the UAW administration would acknowledge as a "loss."

The UAW administration also hailed mandatory vacations during plant shutdowns as winning the right for everyone to "have two consecutive weeks of paid time off during prime summer vacation time." (Employees used to get unemployment and supplemental unemployment benefits. They either pocketed the vacation pay or took vacations when they wanted.) Mandatory vacations on the plant's scheduling really mean workers have to work two more weeks each year, and a worker can no longer plan a vacation for when it best fits his/her family's schedule.

On the first day of the UAW Special Bargaining Convention in April 1993 over 1,000 UAW members formed a chanting, jeering line of five and six abreast in front of the entrance to the convention at Cobo Hall in Detroit. They had come in response to the UAW administration's call for a show of force against concessions.

But the size of the demonstration so frightened UAW officials that they lost control of the demonstration—and of their wits. They locked the doors and called the police to clear away the crowd. What more graphic illustration could there be of the UAW's deterioration?

The Reign of the Clipboard Jockeys

The rot in the UAW began showing in the 1970s, when UAW Vice President Irving Bluestone introduced "quality of work life" as the cure for blue-collar blues. QWL puts low-level managerial responsibilities on workers. At the same time, the union abandoned the democratic principle of elected representation in favoring of letting the national president appoint local union representatives. The mating of the two produced a bastard spawn called "clipboard jockeys"—company-paid union representatives appointed by the International UAW and local officers.

Clipboarders strut through assembly plants, accountable to no one and doing nothing but lording it over workers actually building cars. Today, they outnumber the union's own staff more than fifteen to one. In some plants they even outnumber elected officers, accounting for as much as 4% of the membership. They are accountable only to the officer who appoints them, not to the members they are supposed to serve.

A recent decision by the Public Review Board, the UAW's "Supreme Court," stressed that appointed representatives may be fired for criticizing any national UAW policy. Even when elected by their local union to serve as delegates to a convention, they must speak and vote as directed by national officers, not as directed by their membership.

Most often, the activities of clipboarders are buried in secrecy. Members and genuine union representatives fought long battles in GM plants (Wentzville, MO and Anderson, IN) just to find out what clipboarders were doing in private meetings with management and what shop-floor rights they secretly agreed to relinquish.

Clawed by the Cat

Even when the UAW bureaucracy tries to act militant, it is only acting. Support for Caterpillar workers, who are still without a contract, is only pro forma. In 1991, Caterpillar came to the bargaining table seeking, among other things, a permanent two-tier wage schedule, complete flexibility in job assignments (gutting job descriptions and seniority rights) and reductions in the company's health insurance payments.

Caterpillar is the world's largest producer of earth-moving equipment. It is solidly profitable. A decade of cost-cutting and jointness—during which the company reduced the Peoria workforce from 24,000 to 9,000—saw productivity soar. Yet, the company began 1991 with a public relations campaign against the workers. Cat said it needed the concessions to survive.

The union did not respond. Not a word leaked from UAW headquarters at Solidarity House contradicting the company's pronouncements. Right up to the day the strike began, the UAW pretended there was nothing unusual. Members worked overtime and built up inventories while sales were slow. Union-backed committees sought ways to save the company money. On November 4, 1991, the union called a partial strike, bringing out only a small percentage of the Cat workforce. The company locked out a few thousand more. Then the union brought more out on strike. Workers who made every product that Cat had stockpiled were on the street.

Those making replacement parts, at the time the bestselling and most profitable Cat products, stayed on the job. Not once during the twenty-three week strike did the union pull those workers out of the shops.

Union officials put on the appearance of militancy. They organized a huge rally in Peoria with supporters from around the country. They raised one million dollars for the strikers. But they refused to cultivate ties with Brazilian Cat workers. They rejected offers of sympathy strikes from Cat workers in Europe and South Africa, and from the U.S. Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers union.

When management began bringing in scabs, union officers crumbled. Without any advance word, let alone membership discussion, national officials told members to report back to work.

National officers then talked of conducting an "inside campaign." In rapidly scheduled meetings with local union officers, they spoke of organizing work-to-rule campaigns in the plants. Then they flew back to Detroit and left the locals to their own devices. They held no meetings with workers. They developed no strategy for overcoming the demoralizing effects of defeat or rebuilding the workers' organization.

The job was too big for the UAW's Texas Rangers. Still, UAW President Owen Bieber compared the UAW to a lighthouse that would force the haughty officers of Caterpillar to change course for their corporate ship. "We did not make the difficult decision to change our tactics at Caterpillar as a public relations ploy to cover up some kind of surrender," he thundered in June 1992. "I say shame on those who think we did. Shame on those who would condemn us to never shift gears, whatever the consequences to our members or to our union. Shame on those whose vision is so narrow and whose thinking is so rigid, that they can't see that there is, indeed, more than one way to skin a Cat."

By mid-1993, Cat workers were overcoming the devastating emotional effects of their defeat. Little by little, support for the orphaned "action teams" in the plants grew. When Caterpillar fired a shop steward last November, 13,000 Cat workers walked out. The International worked overtime to get them back in the plants, but without a program for carrying on the struggle. Over the next five months, workers would walk out seven more times. Each walk out started on the shop floor, without the prompting or even support of the national union.

Larry Solomon, president of Local 751, representing Cat workers in Decatur, IL, says workers are ready for a company-wide strike. Now is the time, he says, because sales are up and inventories are down, unlike 1991, and unfair labor practice charges leveled by the National Labor Relations Board give the workers a strike basis that bars the company from replacing them legally. Cat workers say the International doesn't seem interested. It continues to treat their struggle as an afterthought, a struggle the Rangers would prefer to forget.

Shot in the Back

Back in 1973, when wildcats and strikes were frequent, International Vice President Douglas Fraser led a "flying squadron" of 700 armed union staffers and administration loyalists to break up an "unauthorized" UAW strike and picket line at Chrysler's Mack Avenue stamping plant in Detroit. Today, a strike is a rarity.

By 1980-82 UAW President Fraser's concessions to Chrysler, Ford and GM opened the floodgates to union concessions throughout the economy—the same flood that swamped Cat workers. In 1989, Big Three UAW members worked nine more days a year and were $4000 a year behind where they were under the old contract Reformers labeled the '80s the "decade of decline."

Concessions sparked a rash of injuries: The industrial injury and illness rate increased fourfold during the '80s, and continued to rise thereafter. Officers of UAW Local 1999 (Oklahoma City, OK) figured the high injury rate at their plant was the workers' fault for being in poor physical condition. They started a physical therapy team and a "work-hardening team"—as if work wasn't hard enough already!

Fraser's concessions also opened the door to ruinous competition within the union, such as the Arlington, TX GM local union giving the company concessions rejected by Willow Run in a bid to take the Michigan plant's work. The UAW International Executive Board declined to block those concessions, even though Article 19.6 of the Constitution of the International UAW requires it to do so:

“...so that no infringements by Local Unions with inferior agreements in workplaces doing similar work may be committed against the Local Union with advanced agreements.”

Instead, the UAW administration called out the Rangers to squash a budding movement against the Willow Run plant closing. City officials filed suit to stop the closing, saying GM had promised to keep the plant open in exchange for tax concessions a few years earlier. The UAW administration refused to support the suit. They told leaders of the Willow Run local to stay away from the city's action, an order some of them ignored, and intervened in unions around the country to prevent expressions of support for Willow Run. They threatened Detroit-area local union officers with the end of their careers if they joined demonstrations and protests against the plant closing.

Privileges of Rankness

By the late 1980s, the whiff of corruption in the UAW was becoming too strong to ignore. International Secretary-treasurer Ray Majerus was the subject of a federal investigation when he died. Election rigging in the union's Region 5 led to a court-supervised rerun of the election for that region's seat on the International Executive Board in 1988.

In 1992, the federal government began investigating workers' complaints at several Ford plants that union officers were being paid off by management with "free" overtime. Companies pay top local officers up to four times their regular wages through unworked overtime, if they only stay out of the way—as International Vice President Ernie Lofton admitted at a hastily assembled meeting called to address the Ford members' complaints to the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL). New contract language freeing union representatives from the time clock and entitling them to extra pay eliminates records that could prove such charges to the DOL's satisfaction.

A worse scandal broke in Kansas City in 1994. Apparently company and union officials at Ford's Claycomo plant had joined together in a fraud and extortion ring. Union officials got free overtime. Supervisors got kickbacks from workers for scheduling the unworked overtime Ford Headquarters fired eighteen employees, including supervisors and union officers, for their role. The DOL is investigating complaints that grievance handlers and supervisors raked in fees up to ¶1500 from workers for getting them jobs at the plant or transfers.

When the head of the UAW Legal Department spoke to a meeting of local union officers from around the country to advise them on how to use their company-donated cars without running afoul of federal regulations, few of those present suffered enough pangs of conscience to even blush. Vice President Lofton did get angry, however, when he discovered that one union representative taped the meeting and then went public with its content. (That officer is a member of the national reform group, the New Directions Movement.)

Father Knows Best

UAW President Bieber says the UAW Constitution "equitably balances democratic guarantees with procedures that will allow decisive action should that be necessary to protect the interest of a member of the Union," and it "provides the one standard against which the behavior of members and leaders alike can be judged." The UAW Constitution reflects the theory that the union is a hothouse for democracy, preparing workers to have "a voice in their destiny and the right to participate in making decisions that affect their lives before such decisions are made." It pledges the UAW to work for "real and meaningful participatory democracy and responsible and accountable government."

The UAW's practice, however, is quite different. When faced with widespread opposition to a concessionary pact at GM in 1984, Bieber announced that he didn't care how the members voted. He was not going to renegotiate the agreement.

Len Rudd, a member of Local 2250 in Wentzville, MO, has many anecdotes reflecting the actual operating philosophy of the union. He used scrap cardboard to make signs near his work station, detailing violations of the contract and calling for union action. Management always tore down the signs. The most supportive response a union cowboy ever gave him was to say "you have balls as big as watermelons, but you don't have a brain in your head."

Rudd says International Representative M. Fred Singleton worked with the unit chairman to deny office to four officers-elect three years ago. Outspoken opponents of a philosophy of concessions, the four were elected to the shop committee, the highest local body for settling grievances and negotiating with management. Before they could take office, however, Singleton and the chairman redistricted the plant, gerrymandering new district boundaries to eliminate the offices. President Bieber's office upheld the chairman on appeal.

Administration supporters in Local 1999 took a more direct approach. They basically expelled leading reformers from the union for supposedly getting reimbursed for union business when they were on the company clock. Their pay stubs prove their innocence, but they were unable to get a fair hearing at any level of the UAW. Bieber's office sanctioned barring the reformers from voting in the union, holding union office or getting strike pay in the event of a strike. His office also overturned bylaws approved overwhelmingly by Local 2250's membership, requiring that members be informed of changes in agreements with management and invalidating those not approved by membership vote.

When the members of Local 2250 exercised their right under the International UAW Constitution to shorten the terms for grievance handlers from three years to two, Bieber's office reversed that too. It seems whenever the members are restless, the president's office rides in to protect endangered officers and save the ignorant rank and file from itself.
The Bieber-led bureaucracy even set itself against solidarity. It uses every opportunity to administratively divide local unions:

• When GM moved the seat assembly at Wentzville into a different building, the International decided that different buildings have different contracts.

• When Ford contracted to build minivans for Nissan at its Avon Lake assembly plant, the International decided that different products have different contracts.

• When workers on the Nissan line rejected their local agreement in March 1994, the bureaucratic Rangers told the workers on the Ford line that if their union brothers and sisters struck, they must ignore their pickets and report to work

The bureaucracy also opposes solidarity with individuals. Instead of voting to support a member who appeals to the UAW membership for help in a dispute with management, Bieber's office issued explicit instructions not to discuss grievances at membership meetings, and to reject all such appeals. That way, says Local 2250 president Jerry Gorski, the member can more quickly appeal to Bieber's office, which unlike the membership has the expertise to evaluate those disputes. Bieber, he adds, can get something done if there is a problem, but the membership can't

Such roadblocks turn members away from the union. Attendance at Local 2250 meetings fell from an average of 600 people five years ago, to less than 150 today. Even Rudd rarely goes to membership meetings. "What's the point," he asks? "It doesn't matter how we vote. They're [the union officers] going to do what they want anyway."

Union officers aren't accountable to their members, but they are accountable to the International administration. They can do whatever they want only as long as they stay within its limits. That is a powerful motivation for most local officers to become ardent supporters of the bureaucracy. At the 1993 bargaining convention, for example, most delegates wildly cheered President Bieber when he imperiously told delegate Tom Laney that he didn't have to answer Laney's questions because he was only a convention delegate, not a national officer!

Delegates to the bargaining convention characteristically spoke as supplicants to International officers. Gomer Goins, from Local 22 in Detroit, thanked officers for the "incredible job" they had performed in past negotiations without a hint of irony. He pleaded with them to "do something" about health care (which they did by diverting money from wages back to the companies). Such delegates equate union power with their president's persuasiveness. They exhibit no awareness that the union's power is based on the willingness and ability of workers to act in concert to interfere with production and sales.

Rank-and-file members are not always as respectful towards international officers as were the delegates, but they often share the notion that it is leaders who get things done, while the members are helpless or just too busy. Eric, a member who has since transferred to the Saturn plant in Tennessee, told me he doesn't want to know what's going on in the union or between union and management "I elected officers to make those decisions for me," he said.

Only Retreat, Only Surrender

In the Texas Ranger model of unionism, the membership has no power, and the union cannot match the financial or legal resources of a large multinational company. The only power left to the union is the power to make concessions. The only strategic question is how best to organize retreat.

Al Wilson, a unit chairman in Local 600 in Detroit, MI, clearly expressed this at the bargaining convention: "Don't blame these guys [international officers] if your plant closes. You're elected by your plant. It's your job to do whatever it takes to keep it viable.... We have to try new things or we won't have a plant to argue about anymore." Wilson's speech drew rousing applause.

Other delegates followed the International's lead in painting concessions as victories. Karen Messinger, from Local 664 in Tarrytown, NY, advocated that the UAW promote the team concept and "pay-for-knowledge," which are integral parts of the modern speed up. They are a frontal attack on classifications, the traditional union tool for defending fairness, seniority and job rights. Messinger said the team concept would "increase pay, job security and process ownership."

It is a mark of how effectively the UAW's administration teaches submissiveness that such delegates as Messinger can both praise jointness and report that it doesn't work She complained that after her local union gave the company everything it wanted—cooperation to increase productivity and quality and lobbying for tax abatements and lower energy prices—GM broke its promise to keep the plant open until 1999. The plant is now scheduled to close in 1995. Messinger can rest easy, however, because she "owns the process."

Tom Laney, a former president and former recording secretary of his local union, argues that to implement its bureaucratic and concessionary policies, the UAW administration "has to mobilize the most right-wing, antiunion people in the union." The administration is very good, however, at maintaining a left cover while mobilizing the right, often with the help of social democrats. The International executive board will issue statements backing progressive issues, but it doesn't communicate those to the membership, much less organize around them. The only limes, other than elections, the administration sought to mobilize the membership in Wentzville, MO during the last eight years was to oppose environmental legislation: the national Clean Air Act and a state Natural Streams Act.

UAW Region 5 belongs to a progressive electoral coalition in St. Louis, run by a former ACORN organizer who wears Red Army hats and hangs posters of Che Guevara on his walls. But it is a coalition based on old-time machine politics rather than principles. In return for endorsing a candidate backed by abortion rights and gay rights organizations, for example, the Region got them to back two of its candidates.

More typical of the Region's approach to politics was its backing for Democratic candidate for governor. When that candidate won, he rewarded the UAW by appointing the head of its political action committee to a lucrative patronage position in state government. That individual officer got a reward, not the working class.

It's the Ranger independence which enables the bureaucracy to make such deals. The administration can back "unpopular" causes without worrying about membership reaction, because the membership won't know. Often a statement or the union's name on a paper is all it takes to bind progressives, reformers and social activists within the union to the bureaucracy's authoritarian rule.

For example, in 1992 the UAW administration faced a challenger in the election for president, the first time in over forty years. The administration's victory was never in doubt, but it wanted to humiliate the opposition, to smash it so thoroughly that no one would ever pay it any attention again. The National Writers' Union, newly affiliated with the UAW, had several members who sympathized with the opposition reform movement. Its president, Jonathan Tasini, had written favorably about the reformers. What could swing him around?

As it turned out, it didn't take much. The UAW Constitution states that one of its objects is to unite employees regardless of "race, creed, color." All it took was to add "sexual orientation" to the list and Tasini took to the floor of the convention in support of the bureaucracy. Reformers also favored the change, but didn't have the votes to deliver it. What does it matter if administration delegates voting for the change returned home and, like the president of Local 879, organized to support anti-gay movements in their states? Progressives are satisfied with words. Conservatives want power.

How To Revive A Union?

The problem for UAW reformers is how to mobilize the more union-oriented workers in the UAW. Do you run candidates for office and reinforce the cowboy ideology that it's leaders who get things done and not workers? Or do you try to mobilize the rank and file before standing candidates, and risk being ignored or dismissed as "not serious"? It may seem irrational to pose the question as an either/or proposition. Isn't there a dynamic relationship between the two? Aren't both approaches necessary to the reform process?

Jerry Tucker, former national organizer of the national reform movement in the UAW, the New Directions Movement, points out that it is easier to mobilize the membership when in office, than it is out of office. More fundamentally, he says, "If you don't have a horse in the race, nobody pays any attention to you." The choice, he says, is simple. Either you orient to taking power, or you're irrelevant.

Others, however, maintain that elections are only a formal recognition of power John Borsos, a writer who works with members in Lordstown, OH, says "if you seize power on the shop floor, you have the strength to withstand concessionary pressure from management and the international union. If you don't have that power, your election is irrelevant."

The basic question reformers face is how to start the process of the rank-and-file retaking of their union and reorganizing for struggle. In my experience, those who argued for building a rank-and-file organization simultaneously with running in elections built electoral campaign organizations, not activist groups. The lure of winning elections propelled them to drop controversial platforms and to reach out to the conciliationist right in order to "broaden" their appeal and gain victory. The logic of elections compelled them to substitute themselves for the membership, to promise to provide better contracts to the members, not better struggles.

Once elected on such appeals, actually trying to reform the union became a career-damaging "betrayal" of the voters. Most of those elected as New Directions candidates succumbed to the UAW administration's pressures. They turned their backs on New Directions.

In most local unions there are elections two out of every three years, either for delegates or local officers. Ted Kayser, a New Directions activist in Local 2250, thinks that nationally New Directions needs to take a break from at least one election season to organize local groups of activists. Kayser argues that elections are when you find out how much support you have. The time to organize and build support for your program is between elections. When people have had passivity beaten into them, it takes more than one year to organize them to act for themselves. Reformers squander most of their time contesting elections instead of organizing.

This year UAW reformers seek to deepen their caucus into more than an electoral front with a campaign called "Fight for Your Life: A Union Action Plan" focusing on such shop-floor issues as speed-up, health and safety, and shorter work time. The absence of any major elections enables them to sidestep the election issue for a year. But what about next year?

Making the debate more urgent is the fear that the UAW is hanging to life by a very thin thread. "If something doesn't happen in the next few years," says Tucker, "it may be too late." In that case, there will be no chance of turning the UAW again into a workers' organization. It will be a solidly company union.

July-August 1994, ATC 51

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <b> </b> <br> <br /> <a> </a> <em> </em> <strong> </strong> <cite> </cite> <code> </code> <ul> </ul> <ol> </ol> <li> </li> <dl> </dl> <dt> </dt> <dd> </dd> <div> </div> <img> <style> <font> </font> <blockquote> </blockquote> <hr>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

More information about formatting options

By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.