Summary: The strike against General Motors by 49,000 members of the United Autoworkers, which began September 15, has caught the attention of the country.
Labor organizing and militancy has not been deterred in an anti-union, anti-labor atmosphere. The strike follows the 2018-2019 “red wave” of teacher strikes and protests in several states and urban school districts, especially in so-called right-to-work states. And it continues the labor militancy in 2018 which saw the most workers since 1986 involved in strikes in major industries, some 485,000.
In an ongoing grab for the portion of revenue made by and reserved for its workers, GM is angling to make them pay more for health insurance and receive wage increases below the rate of inflation. GM workers are also being asked to tolerate the use of temps, contractors, and an underclass of lower-paid assemblers – lowering the aggregate wage. In addition, they have watched factories close, such as the Lordstown assembly plant in Ohio, and production shifted to lower-wage factories in Mexico. GM may be convinced to reopen a plant, if the price is right. Such a “victory” is ripe for the UAW to paper over an agreement that has GM retaining a low-wage stratum of workers or other concessions.
GM famously requested and received a $50 billion loan in 2009 from the U.S. government while both were in the maw of the Great Recession. Repayment fell short by $11.2 billion though company and union say such corporate welfare was worth saving jobs. Also unpaid was the “loan” advanced by UAW members, in other words, concessions. Since its inception in the 1930s, the UAW has positioned itself as a partner in the profitability of automakers. So in the wake of the mid-1970s structural changes in the economy, they convinced the membership to accept give-back contracts.
Perhaps the most galling concessions are the two-tier wage system, around since the 1980s, and hiring temporary workers. A divided rank-and-file accepted these roll-backs in 2009 when GM asked to reopen the very contract which ended the previous strike in 2007. Despite years of profitability – GM raked in $35 billion in the past three years – the company appears to have no plan to repay this loan.
To this legacy, one UAW member bitterly declared, “As the UAW leaders of my plant carry the immorality of the market like it’s supposed to run our lives and lecture us about our stupidity in not electing enough sell-out democrats, they have moved from not only not having the right answers to having answers that are destroying our country and world. And they are pushing these anti-answers everywhere in our local unions.”
At GM, the two-tiered wage system looks like, on the one hand, a group of line workers and support staff who hired in before 2007 and, if they managed to hang on, now average $31 an hour and can leave with a pension. On the other hand, those hired in 2007 start at $17 an hour and must ride an eight-year wage escalator to $29 an hour. Gone for them is a pension, replaced with a 401(1) savings plan that’s only as healthy as the economy. In addition, fully seven percent of GM plants are staffed with “permatemps,” permanently underpaid so-called temporary employees. Although union members, they earn $15 per hour, enjoy no health benefits, are allowed three (unpaid) days off per year, and can work seven days a week. And contractors such as Aramark have replaced janitorial and skilled-trades employees.
The media (and even the pro-union press) has framed the two-tier wage and temporary labor issues as matters of corporate greed versus fairness. However underlying the drive to increase profits is a problem which cannot be resolved through negotiations. That problem is the tendency of the rate or profit to fall, pronounced in times of economic crisis. In every factory and marketplace where surplus value is collected and then reapplied to the organization to increase profits, it isn’t enough. Notwithstanding the $22 million paycheck for GM CEO Mary T. Barra, profits must be reinvested – capital for capital. Nothing can be done to stanch that tendency, but GM and other capital-amassing centers will try by squeezing ever more unpaid hours of labor from its employees.
Maximum suppression of wages, like pulling back on health insurance and bringing in underpaid workers, is one way to accomplish this. Another is to get rid of assemblers through automation. Still another, which is the flip side of redundancy, is to make them work at the pace of the machines. Autoworkers are wise to GM’s strategy to force workers down each of these paths.
The overwhelming majority of the 995,000 workers in the U.S. auto and auto supply manufacturing industry are not in a union. Many can be found in plants built behind the anti-union wall of right-work-laws in the Sun Belt states. The Japanese Big Three auto companies (Honda, Toyota, Nissan), the German Big Three (Volkswagen, BMW, Mercedes-Benz) and other foreign companies like Volvo have set up shop in the south – 17 factories and counting — with Alabama being a favorite state. The UAW has not overcome anti-labor practices, fear mongering, and its own limitations to organize these shops. When GM compares wages of its UAW workers with those of the international companies making autos in the U.S., it sees a $13-an-hour difference. The lower aggregate wage of the foreign corporations exerts pressure on GM to match it in all its facilities.
While cars need be built by humans, the pace of automation is increasing. A third of global production of robotics is now dedicated to the automotive industry. GM’s own plan for robotics, Zero Down, is a partnership with the multinational collection of robotics companies known as FANUC. It has brought 13,000 robots into GM’s 54 factories. The network of robotics, which communicate production metrics constantly, comprise “smart manufacturing” and extend well beyond the original automatic sheet metal welders. Wearable technologies and “collaborative robots,” or “cobots,” “can safely operate around human workers without the use of safety cages,” a GM exec told Autonews last year. As against earlier stages of automation which drove workers to toil at the pace of the machines on another part of the assembly line, now a mechanical glove worn by an assembler can telescope his or her hand strength, enabling heavier and more lifts of materials in shorter amounts of time.
While it’s the most aggressive company in the acquisition of robotics, GM is only following the dictates of the world market. Measured by “robot density,” or number of robots per number of workers, the biggest markets are in the leading auto making countries — China, Japan, the South Korea, the U.S. and Germany. And within the U.S., distribution of robotics in the auto industry as a whole provides a geography lesson: According to a 2017 Brookings Institute study, “Detroit not only has more than three times the number of installed robots compared to other metros, it’s also seen some of the biggest explosions of growth…. There is a correlation between robot-laden metro areas and feelings of economic anxiety, particularly in such robot-exposed ‘red’ states as Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania where the presidential election’s outcome was determined.” Indeed, a study by Ball State researchers showed that the vast majority of lost jobs in U.S. manufacturing — 88 percent — were taken by robots and other domestic factors that reduce factories’ need for human labor.
It is the same pressure to match or better the lowest cost for labor and the fastest speed to manufacture an auto which has GM and all other manufacturers ready to embrace electric vehicles. Never one to miss an opportunity, GM has offered to do what it would have done anyway, namely make electric cars, but as a sop to the UAW, to do it in union shops. Not so well understood yet, though, is the simplicity of an electric vehicle compared to the internal combustion engine-driven one. It requires far fewer parts and the time to put them together. Ford claims the time to make an electric vehicle will be 30 percent shorter. A moderate shift to electric powered autos in Germany, for example, may flush 75,000 workers out of the auto industry, even with the addition of 25,000 of the new kinds of jobs companies and politicians like to project. Whatever value is “saved” will surely not reduce the price of electric vehicles over internal combustion ones nor be used to compensate the future ex-assemblers.
As if to let its workforce know who it’s dealing with, GM suspended health insurance benefits to strikers. The measure mirrors the domination of factory over lives of workers at GM and capitalist culture over communities in general. All eyes are on strikers at GM, by all who join them in their passion to break away from both.