meet the new boss: the united auto workers’ union

by Adam Ford

What do you call a ‘union’ where the people at the top will directly profit from increasing the exploitation of their ‘membership’? Well, if Barack Obama gets his way, you can call it the United Auto Workers.

Yes, in return for a government rescue package, Chrysler executives and UAW bureaucrats have agreed a deal which will has important implications for the class struggle worldwide, and marks a new stage in the liquidation of official trade unions.

In common with the other ‘big three’ American auto companies (the others being General Motors and Ford), and indeed competitors around the world, Chrysler has suffered from dramatically lower sales in recent years. This situation has been catastrophically worsened by the recession, causing Chrysler and General Motors to seek a bridging loan from the Obama administration. Following the recommendations of the Wall Street-led Presidential Task Force, Obama has given the UAW majority control of Chrysler and a 38% stake in GM, charging it with attacking jobs, wages and benefits.

You did read that right, but perhaps it is worth taking a moment to consider it carefully. Unions, we are told, exist to look after the interests of their workers. True, the leaders normally make a public show of protest, before going into boardrooms and negotiating a stitch-up deal behind their members’ backs. But at least it hasn’t been the union leaders who have been doing the actual firing, the tearing up of contracts, and the scrapping of benefits hard won over decades of struggle. Until now, that is.

The United Auto Workers union was born in the mid 1930s, during the depths of the Great Depression. One of the first unions to organise black workers, its first major action was a sit down strike in a Michigan GM factory. Over a period of three months, the workers occupied the facility, shutting management out. In January 1937, police tried to force their way in, but workers met them with fire hoses and missiles. After several hours and several charges, the police withdrew. Eventually, GM gave in and officially recognised the UAW, which saw its membership soar from 30,000 to 500,000 in just one year. The working class had forced a significant concession from the owners.

Today, the UAW has fewer members than in 1938. They pay their dues to a bureaucracy which already lived very well before the latest deals. In 2008, UAW President Ron Gettelfinger took home $162,000, including expenses. He and his accomplices now stand to profit handsomely from the blood, sweat and tears of the UAW members, if they vote to accept the deal/ultimatum.

Union bureaucrats around the world sometimes speak against ‘excesses’ of the system, but the truth is they themselves profit from it. Separated from the coalface by chasms of privilege, they live parasitically on workers’ dues. In an era of economic globalisation, they remain tied to the nation state, and campaign to set workers in different countries against each other, with reactionary campaigns to buy American and buy British etc. Faced with a historic economic collapse, the like of which has not been seen since the times that formed the UAW, Gettelfinger and his cronies have blazed a trail for trade union tops around the world.

In their fight against Ford, sacked UK Visteon workers have already come up against bureaucratic backstabbing. If workers are to successfully defend their interests in the coming period, they will have to reject their leadership, their nationalist poison and even the profit system itself.

Now, who’s for a nice sit down?