A labor column specifically for workers.
The Unknown Autoworkers
As summer weather sears the southwest and Kenneth Starr continues to grab headlines in the daily papers, a more important story is languishing in the back pages of the business section: the GM strike. So far, coverage of the strike on the evening news has focused only on a shortage of new cars for people to buy, with scenes of car salesmen lounging around like well-fed slackers in their three-piece suits. But beneath such trivial slop lies a vital struggle between General Motors and the United Autoworkers (UAW) union over the right for employees to strike when they know that their jobs and health are at risk.
The strike began on Friday, June 5th, when 3,377 UAW workers walked out of a key parts factory in Flint, Michigan. The metal-stamping plant makes parts for a redesigned line of pickups, the company’s most important product launch in years, and it also supplies bumpers, hoods, and body parts for large cars in various GM lines. But it was GM who made the first move: as if to antagonize the union, GM had removed crucial stamping dies from the plant over the Memorial Day weekend and sent them to another metal-stamping plant in Mansfield, Ohio. Employees blocked the parking lot and vehicle entrances to prevent more equipment from leaving. After deliberating over this and the company’s recent announcement to cut 11,000 jobs in Flint in the next two years, the workers went on strike.
As if to prove the union’s claims, a memo was leaked from GM headquarters the following Tuesday. The memo outlined GM’s plans to double production in Mexico, where wages are only a fraction of what workers make in the U.S. The next day, GM announced that it would close its big production plant in Lordstown, Ohio, where it manufactures small cars, and move the production facilities to a low-wage country.
The UAW’s response was swift: an additional 5,800 workers went on strike at a second plant on Thursday, June 11th. The Delphi Flint East plant produces instrument panels, spark plugs, speedometers, filters, and other electronic parts to most of GM’s assembly plants. Between the shutdown of these two parts plants, the UAW was able to completely halt GM’s production capacity–in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico–within two weeks. In effect, an estimated 297,000 workers are now off the job.
In the meantime, GM has refused to negotiate with the union, while simultaneously trying to force strikers back to work. GM is contending that the strike is illegal, because their current contract with the UAW forbids workers to strike over the issue of jobs being moved out of the U.S. The union, on the other hand, claims that the strike is about safety issues: GM has no concerns for workers’ safety within the plant while implementing “efficiency standards” that include not hiring replacements for workers who retire.
This is not the first time GM and its employees have butted head. In the past two years, the UAW has closed down or slowed down GM production nine times over issues of layoffs, attrition, and safety. GM has eliminated 39,000 blue-collar jobs since 1993, and may cut as many as 30,000 to 50,000 more to bring the company in line with its productivity goals.
GM is not a company in financial trouble. It’s the largest auto manufacturer in the U.S., with a 31% market share, compared to Ford’s 24%. Prior to the strike, GM was raking in record profits; last year it made a net profit of $2.3 billion. But the company isn’t satisfied with this, electing to push for “profit improvement.” This means more lay-offs, more out-sourcing, moving more jobs to Mexico or Canada, and manufacturing more expensive sport utility vehicles (which sell at a higher profit, but also use more gas and produce more greenhouse gases than smaller cars).
These moves to maximize profit at any cost are ones being played out in large companies all over the U.S.–indeed, all over the world. “Some profit” is not enough profit for GM to compete in the global marketplace, because shareholders are demanding a higher rate of return. As long as a competitor (Ford) is making a slightly higher profit margin, then shareholders will abandon GM stock to buy up Ford’s, eventually sending GM into a downward spiral. In a sense, the end product–GM cars and trucks–are only secondary to the performance of GM stock, which relies on how much profit GM can squeeze out of the consumer’s pocket and the pockets of the workers who make the cars. That’s the real story behind the GM strike, and the one that isn’t making the evening news.