Sunday, June 27, 2010

UAW convention: Fighting words inspire delegates, but fight-back strategy is needed

By Martha Grevatt
Published Jun 25, 2010 8:49 PM

The 35th Constitutional Convention of the United Auto Workers, held here in Detroit for the first time in decades, concluded on June 17 with a rousing speech by the union’s newly elected president, Bob King. King stressed the UAW’s renewed commitment to organizing the unorganized, starting with Toyota’s U.S. plants.

Barring “a terrorism campaign by the bosses,” workers there will be eager to become unionized, King said. “We aren’t going to wait for EFCA.” The unions have been lobbying for some time for the Employee Free Choice Act, but so far in vain. The new leader called on delegates to become volunteer organizers.

King reiterated the UAW’s commitment to civil rights, blasting Arizona’s racist profiling law against immigrants, SB 1070. That law, he said, “is what the bosses have done since day one. Don’t get sucked into divide and conquer.”

King brought the 2,000 delegates and guests to their feet when he closed with a challenge: “Sisters and brothers, are we ready to take on the fight for social and economic justice for all workers?”

While King had nothing but praise for outgoing UAW President Ron Gettelfinger — who had hailed as “transformational” the 2007 concessionary contracts that brought a two-tier wage scale to Ford, General Motors and Chrysler — many may interpret this speech as signaling a new orientation toward militancy and activism.

As the convention adjourned, delegates prepared to march on Detroit’s financial district. UAW staff led the energetic crowd in chanting, “No justice, no peace” and “They say get back, we say fight back.” The march was a high point of the convention.

Yet a critical observer would question whether the UAW leadership has the wherewithal to carry out a serious struggle against “the bosses” and for “justice for all workers.” The sessions leading up to King’s acceptance speech resembled a high school pep rally. Delegates sat through one tribute after another to the officers who were retiring and to those who were replacing them. Every delegate who spoke was expected to open with a reference to his or her “great regional director” and delegates from that director’s region were expected to stand up and cheer. Scripted comments were handed to delegates to read as if they were the delegate’s own words.

Critics of the leadership — who saw the glaring contradiction between the resolutions tackling every aspect of “social and economic justice” and the cooperative relationship between the UAW leaders and their own ruthless employers — faced numerous obstacles to get their message heard. Resolutions could not be amended, so dissenters were limited to opposing a somewhat progressive, multi-issue program on the grounds that it did not go far enough.

Supporters of challenger Gary Walkowicz — who led a successful effort to vote down concessions at Ford last October, while King was the UAW vice president in charge of Ford — were harassed while campaigning and told to throw away their leaflets before entering the convention hall.

Supporters of King’s “Mobilizing for Justice Team” were able to enter the hall in the wee hours of the morning of the election and flood the room with campaign balloons. The pressure to conform was so intense that only around 20 brave delegates openly cast their ballots for Walkowicz, who ran on an anticoncession platform.

The day before the convention, this writer, an elected alternate delegate, was threatened with arrest for handing out leaflets for a “solidarity rally” with the theme “One million members lost — it’s time to change course.” Former union president Al Benchich, an elected delegate, and this writer were told we could not even stand in front of Cobo Convention Center with leaflets under our arms. Benchich was arrested, handcuffed and released only after agreeing to cross the street.

Now is the worst possible time for the UAW to suppress militant opposition, to violate the most basic democratic norms and ethical standards, and to do so in collusion with the capitalist state. Not only has membership plummeted, but union wages and benefits are in danger of elimination by bosses hungry for a bigger slice of the value workers alone produce. The situation cries out for serious deliberation on how to resist further attacks on the union’s own members as well as workers all over the world — rather than a four-day feel-good session.

Nevertheless, the fighting words coming from the lips of the new helmsman will give the rank-and-file encouragement. UAW members should hold their leaders’ feet to the fire and say, “Economic and social justice for all workers — including us!”

GM workers in Saginaw, Mich., didn’t wait for a sign from above to demonstrate their will to resist. In the Nexteer plant — which GM took back from former parts division Delphi, where wages were already cut drastically in 2007 — UAW members shot down demands for further pay cuts. The vote, which took place the same week as the convention, sent a message that staged applause could not drown out. Enough is enough, and we will resist!
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