Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Current State of the UAW

(via Lee Sustar's article on labor in the newest International Socialist Review)

"It was during that 1930s crisis that the United Auto Workers (UAW) stormed onto the scene with dramatic factory occupations led by communists, socialists, and other radicals. Today’s UAW, though, is a vastly different organization. It has followed its long-established strategy of partnership with employers to an extreme conclusion by becoming, through health-care trust funds, a major shareholder in GM alongside the U.S. government and the majority (55 percent) shareholder in Chrysler. To achieve this bizarre form of employee ownership—the union trust fund will get just one seat on the company board—the union agreed to ban strikes for six years, eliminate work rules negotiated over decades, cut overtime pay, and further concessions.The result of all this is the virtual elimination of the difference between UAW-organized plants and non-union ones. The UAW, which once steadily raised the bar for wages and benefits for the entire U.S. working class, is now leading the way down."

This is indeed a sad state of affairs. It was difficult not to have relatively high hopes months ago in November as a new President and an increased Democrat majority in Congress entered Washington, both of whom touted their resolve to pass EFCA loudly and often. But given the way things have turned out, it's difficult to imagine how much different things would be for labor had Obama and the Democrats lost the election.

Obama has done little to make good on his promises to pass EFCA and his Administration has been more interested in bailing out bankers and placating Capital than in better the condition of working people. Sustar points us to a damning public statement from January in which the Obama Administration bragged that it was tougher on the UAW than the Bush Administration had been. Indeed, it touts the fact that "in virtually every respect, the concessions that the UAW agreed to are more aggressive than what the Bush Administration originally demanded in its loan agreement with GM."

But, of course, Obama is not solely to blame for the demise of what appeared to be an ascendant moment for labor in the US.

As Sustar points out, inter-union clashes coupled with problems in union leadership have been detrimental as well. Arguably, the follies of union leadership are a large reason why EFCA hasn't been passed. The UAW leadership, in particular, seems most in need of indictment at this point. I understand that they are trying to keep GM from going under, but the meagre scraps from the table they've settled for are tantamount to major defeats in the short and long term. Again as (via Sustar's article) former Canadian Auto Workers economist recently wrote: "the UAW's GM membership is down to 64,000 (from 450,000 at the end of the 70s, when major concessions first began to be extracted). If GM is 'successful' in its current restructuring, that will be further reduced to 40,000. Thirty years of concessions and a 90 percent loss in jobs. If ever there was a failing strategy for workers, this was it." And I think Sustar is right on when he argues that the concessions and defeats forced upon the UAW recently are tantamounts to defeats for the entire US working class (and, ipso facto, gains for capitalists).

In more ways than one this purportedly 'new era' in the US is looking more and more like a newly-packaged version of the same old. I don't think the Obama-Hoover comparison is out of place. This is a serious disappointment. It remains to be seen how deep the contituities will go or how apt the analogy will prove to be, but there is little concrete evidence that Obama intends to do anything like what FDR's administration began trying to do in 1933.

At this point, we'll be lucky if the already-compromised 'public option' gets through the filibuster-proof Democratic Congress.


EHR said...

For me, this begs the question: how do we keep unions from becoming just another part of the group at the top that is standing on everyone else's head? What kind of support and context does a union need to truly do what it needs to for workers?

And how do we get the President and Congress to understand just how hard it is for us "lowly" working people these days?

T said...

I agree that both are pressing questions. However, I think we would do well, in the case of the first question, to distinguish between unions and their leadership. At their best, unions are some of the most democratic organizations in our society. It's sad that most people think of "on the waterfront" when unions come to mind. But the fact remains that the labor movement in the US has an inspiring history of democratic groundswells against exploitation and oppression, even leading the world at some moments in terms of militancy and tenacity (as when fighting in the late 19th century for the 8 hour day...e.g. Haymarket).

Nonetheless, the major institutionalized unions, as you point out, tend in innumerable cases to buck the interests of their workers (and particularly the interest of the working-class writ large), while making good with employers, enriching the union leadership, etc.. But I see very few problems that "too much union influence" have created in Washington at all. In general, what have unions achieved in terms of law? This is what mostly comes to mind: higher wages for workers, better healthcare, shorter working days/weeks, better working conditions, social security and safe pensions, etc. Now to the extent that they didn't do better at achieving maximally progressive versions of the above reforms, they are worthy of rebuke. Moreover, much of the decisions made by the big unions' leadership (esp. during the Cold War) did a lot toward bureaucratizing, ossifying, de-fanging their own unions, while fighting against the radical Left within the labor movement.

The trade unions in the US have never had enough power to ever really stand on anyone's head in terms of overpowering or subordinating the majority of society in the way that Capital has and continues to do (though many have a horrid histories in terms of race and gender oppression).

But point taken. The bureaucritizaiton and weaving of unions into corporate state is a serious problem, and one that seems exemplified in the 'managed capitalism' of the post-War Keynesian compromise between labor and Capital in many cases. (nonetheless, I think I would rather have bad unions be some part of that ossified elite sedimented in our government, rather than have a all-corporate dominated ruling class and no unions at all.

I've got nothing on the second question. I'm beginning to think that I won't ever vote for another Democrat, but I'm sure that I will feel the punishing weight of the lesser lesser evil in the future. Incidentally, one good things about unions (and many other social movements), if they are maximally independent of the Dems, is that they can put enormous pressure not just on elected officials, but on capitalists and the elites influencing government. I was really hoping EFCA would pass, mostly because it struck me as an opportunity to extend political participation, democracy, struggle and organization into the body politic in a way that would have future ripple effects throughout the rest of the economy and government (for instance, consider that fierce labor militancy in the 1930s more or less created the conditions that led to the good parts of the Wagner Act, social security, etc.). Anyways, I feel like I'm rambling...