This week 73,000 hourly workers at General Motors (GM) walked off the job in the first nation-wide strike against GM since 1970. In that strike 37 years ago, some 400,000 workers shut down a company that was the largest automaker–and one of the largest corporations–in the world.
Thirty-three years before that big strike, autoworkers in Flint, Michigan, had a very different kind of “walk out”: after occupying GM factories for more than a month, they won recognition of their union and walked out in celebration. Their victory made the UAW’s reputation as a militant union, and was symbolic of a rising tide of worker activism under the new National Labor Relations Act.
Turn back the clock another thirty years: a nascent auto industry selling mostly to the wealthy, the founding of GM in 1908, the assembly line still a few years off. An automobilized world yet to come.
In that cycle of decades we can find a significant strand of American and global history. To paraphrase Frederick Jackson Turner’s famous claim about the frontier, and with all due respect to partisans of other varieties of history: the rise and fall of mass production industries, the communities they created, and the unions that represented their workers IS the story of the U.S. in the 20th century.
The current strike that is igniting a lot of fear and loathing in Michigan, the home state of the UAW and the Big Three automakers. GM and Ford are toying with bankruptcy and Chrysler was recently dropped like a hot potato by German owners Daimler-Benz into the hands of speculative investment company. The UAW is a shadow of its former self, and is perhaps fighting now for its very survival.
To get a sense of the way the strike has created a forum for the deep antiworker and antiunion sentiment in southeastern Michigan you need only to read the reader comments posted on the Detroit Free Press’s online edition. At the same time, you have readers posting lengthly and well-reasoned critiques of the UAW leadership for not mobilizing a more militant response. It’s a rhetorical battle over history, and by the looks of it, many union members and supporters are well-versed.
Narrowly, the strike is about “job security” provisions in the contract. The union has already agreed to a benefit trust for retiree health care costs. This was GM’s major demand, and they have trumpeted the fact that health care costs for current and former workers add more than $1,000 to the cost of their US-made cars. Now they are likely resisting giving the union guarantees that they will continue certain levels of production in the US.
GM has also proposed a lower wage for new hires. If the company achieves this, Ford and Chrysler will follow suit. They will have essentially broken the union, and they will be on par with Toyota in terms of wages. Shortly after that, the UAW will merge with the USW (Steelworkers), which is already pursuing a global-union strategy in steel and other sectors. That’ll be the end of the UAW as an independent union. It will also prompt the media to call an official end of the “American” auto industry, more an acknowledgment of current reality than a true change of conditions.
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