UAW latest example of workers’ power in fight against capital

By R Arun Kumar  

The power of automobile workers in the US has prevailed over the might of capital. The “stand up” strike which lasted for over a month, ended after the United Auto Workers (UAW) reached agreements with the three automobile giants: General Motors, Stellantis and Ford. This is a major victory and once again demonstrates the power of the working class. The victory is all the more significant, given capital’s renewed offensive on the rights of the working class.

After extensive negotiations with the manufacturers, UAW secured an agreement that provides for a 25 percent wage increase, an immediate 11 percent signing bonus and the reinstatement of cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs). This nearly matches the workers’ initial demands.

[Ed: as of publication time, UAW members at the three automakers were voting on the proposed contracts.]

All workers to be employed in electric vehicle manufacturing units to be started in the future will be made part of the centralized union contracts. Previously, the contracts only applied to existing factories, and corporations argued that allowing unions in new factories, especially those related to EV vehicles, might lead to a shift in production to other countries, potentially resulting in job losses in the US. These designs have, for the time being, been averted.

Another significant victory was the agreement to expedite the elimination of the two-tier system with differing pay structures for permanent and temporary workers performing the same tasks. Under the previous contracts, the manufacturers had pledged to phase out these disparities over an eight-year period. Using the pretext of the pandemic, they attempted to maintain the practice of hiring temporary workers and institutionalizing this form of differential employment. However, with the strike and the new agreements, this practice will be discontinued within three years. The agreements also mandate the manufacturers to raise pensions for retired workers.

On top of all these developments, on the eve of the strike Stellantis closed one of its units, resulting in the loss of jobs for 1,200 workers. However, with the strike’s success, not only is the plant being reopened, but these 1,200 workers are being rehired, and it is promised to create an additional 1,000 jobs. In summary, Stellantis had initially planned to cut nearly 5,000 jobs across all its units, but it has now agreed to generate 5,000 new jobs instead.

The significance of this victory becomes even more pronounced when we consider the economic and political context in which it was achieved.

For one, proponents of neoliberalism are spreading misinformation in the name of curbing inflation, falsely attributing that increasing wages of workers is the cause of inflation and hence they must be reined in.

Very recently Australian billionaire Tim Gurner declared that “arrogant” workers needed to be tamed, and to do that unemployment has to rise. He stated, “We’ve got to kill that attitude among ‘arrogant’ workers. And that has to come through hurting the economy.”  He argued that the pandemic made the workers lazy. “They have been paid a lot to do not too much in the past few years, and we need to see that change.” In order to discipline workers, he wanted unemployment to rise to 40-50 percent. “We need to remind people that they work for the employer, not the other way around.”

And he is not alone. Economic analyst Kokou Agbo-Bloua stated: “The central banks need to trigger a recession to force unemployment to pick up and create enough demand destruction.” Further: “The labour market is super tight, and you have lower labour productivity growth which now is pushing unit labour costs, and you get this negative spiral of wage prices.” This means that he too wants a rise in unemployment, arguing that workers are not working hard and that their wages are cutting into the profits of the employers. The same arguments were made by Jerome Powell, the chairperson of the US Federal Reserve, and also by his predecessor Paul Volcker.

But on the contrary, an analysis from the Kansas City Federal Reserve found that in 2021, a whopping 60 percent of price increases in the US economy were solely due to increasing corporate profits. The same trend continued through 2022, with profits hitting record highs, and this is true also for Canada and Europe. All this is being done while workers’ wages have not seen any increase in the recent past, first in the name of the economic crisis and then in the name of the pandemic. Yet the income of the General Motors CEO is 362 times the median GM employee’s paycheck. As Marx stated: “Accumulation of wealth at one pole is, therefore, at the same time accumulation of misery…at the opposite pole.”

Furthermore, there is an intense attack on the rights of the workers everywhere in the world. In the name of labour reforms, workers’ right to unionize, strike and negotiate are sought to be curtailed. In Britain, the Conservative government has introduced the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill 2023 which is aimed to curb strikes, particularly in the transport sector. This is considered to be the most anti-worker and anti-union legislation in the last 100 years.

Similar legislations are either in the process of enactment or have been already enacted in various developed and developing countries. We have witnessed huge struggles waged by the French workers against the labour and pension reforms introduced by the Macron government.

In the United States, union busting efforts of giant corporates like Amazon and Starbucks are well known. These efforts stepped up a notch in the recent period. Referencing a tweet in solidarity with Palestine, which was posted by a Starbucks employee in a unionized store, management joined hands with all those who are demanding the closure of stores where unions exist. The Orthodox Jewish Chamber of Commerce alleged that the “stores are run by the union and their employees who support Hamas” and released a list of several hundred unionized Starbucks locations across the US which it wants to be boycotted.

Starbucks management responded by sending an internal mail condemning Starbucks Workers United (SBWU) and its membership, claiming the union was associated with “acts of terrorism, hate, and violence.” It has ordered the union to change its name and filed a suit against it claiming copyright infringement – because the union has Starbucks in its name.

The SBWU immediately responded to this attack stating that the Starbucks is “taking every chance it gets to bash its employees as supporters of hate and violence without any concern for truth or consequences.” It further stated that the management wants to incite “fear and workplace violence against employees and is using the…global tragedy against its own employees.” This is being done illegally to fire union workers and close union shops.

Instead of being cowed down by the management, the SBWU came out with a statement in solidarity with Palestine. Ninety-six per cent of its members endorsed the statement, which now becomes the official voice of the entire workforce in Starbucks, rather than that of the single worker who had tweeted.

This entire episode once again highlights the impact of political developments on workers and their rights. The right-wing assault on workers’ right to unionize tried to exploit the threat from Zionists to suppress the Starbucks unionization effort. However, the workers did not cow down, and openly expressed their support for Palestine and confronted the power of capital.

From the above experiences, we see that the working class is equally capable of thwarting these attacks. If the working class is suitably equipped with political and ideological consciousness, it would not only defeat all such machinations of capital but can also move to shake the very foundations of its existence. History is witness to this potential.

People’s Democracy [Edited for length and clarity]

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