A shop-floor view of the end of the American Dream

IF YOU believed the media during the bailout of General Motors and Chrysler during 2009, overpaid, greedy autoworkers and unreasonable contracts were the cause of the US auto industry’s demise. That’s what the 1% wants us to believe. Thankfully, there have always been fighters among the 99% to give us the shop-floor view.

Gregg Shotwell is one of those fighters. He helped create and organize a rank-and-file network in the United Auto Workers (UAW) called Soldiers of Solidarity and produced Live Bait and Ammo, a newsletter for fellow union members. Autoworkers Under the Gun is a collection of articles from that newsletter spanning from 1999 to 2009 that chronicles Delphi Automotive Systems’ spinoff from GM, its subsequent bankruptcy, and the crisis of the Big Three  (GM, Chrysler, and Ford) after the onset of the Great Recession.

The strength of this book is revealed in its subtitle: A Shop-Floor View of the End of the American Dream. Shotwell’s newsletter was unapologetically pro-union, and its aim was to expose the fraud of the employer and the collusion of the union bureaucrats while spreading ideas of how to resist worsening conditions on the shop floor. Put together into a single volume, it is part working-class history, part training manual, and part riveting memoir. Thanks to the author’s gift of language, the book often reads like a novel, complete with heroes, villains, and ultimately betrayal by people the protagonist should be able to trust. Unfortunately it’s not a novel; we know the ending, and it’s not happy.

Aside from the details revealed in the excerpts, readers are given only the bare bones of background information. But one need not be an auto industry history buff to understand the lessons behind this tale. It’s the same story known by workers in industries across the board: offshoring and bankruptcy used as an excuse to scare workers into accepting increased production standards and concessions (i.e., union busting).

The book begins in 1999 at the UAW bargaining convention. The issue of the day was GM’s plan to spin off its entire parts division into Delphi. Shotwell was there, acting as both journalist and rank-and-file activist. His reports included numerous testimonies from delegates passionately arguing for a fight back against the plan, as well as dealing with other grievances built up over the years. His own speech, like others, included practical ideas of how to preserve union power through this transition.

Stop the Delphi spinoff dead in its tracks or just come out and tell us the truth now…. If it is a done deal, we demand a national pattern contract for all parts plants, no matter what name they go by or how they are reconfigured on paper. We need wage and benefit parity—not prevailing wage, which is nothing more than a code name for wage cut. How can we hope to organize parts plants if all we have to offer is prevailing wage? They’ve got prevailing wage and it stinks. We want parity with the Big Three for all parts plants. Furthermore, we must demand portable pensions that travel with us wherever we go without losing credit, because we don’t know who we will be working for tomorrow, or what name they will go by, or where or how they will dislocate us.

Brothers and sisters if you work for one of the Big Three today, beware.

The union leadership refused to take his and others’ advice, and his warning was not heeded. What follows is a heart-wrenching story of concessions and betrayal, twice—first at the hands of Delphi, then at the hands of the Big Three.

In April 1999, Shotwell wrote, “If you want to predict the future, you study history. In light of the wisdom gained thereby, you examine the present. The seeds of the future are evident in the here and now. Delphi plans to grow the business by gutting the union.” Their tools for such an endeavor? Offshoring and bankruptcy.

When GM spun off Delphi, Delphi received all their machinery, property, and patents for free. The pensions were fully funded, and they had no retirees. Startup costs were virtually zero. They then continued making and selling the same amount of parts using fewer workers. How did they go bankrupt within six years? They purposefully underfunded the pensions, siphoned their profits to investments overseas, and then pleaded poverty. In bankruptcy court, their offshore investments were protected.

Shotwell explains:

Because bankruptcy is easier than working for a living. It’s easier to profit by evading debt and responsibility to workers and retirees than by practicing innovative design, production, and marketing techniques.

Delphi is the test case. If the court allows Delphi to bankrupt US operations while sheltering assets overseas, other multinationals with follow suit. When the smoke clears, they will return under another name.

I worked twenty-seven years for the same company. First it was called GM, then Delco, then AC Rochester, then Delphi. Management never changed. I may have forgotten a few of the aliases, but you get the picture; this isn’t a shakeout, it’s a shakedown.

Union busting is the main problem causing declining unionization rates and working conditions for auto workers, not offshoring jobs. As Shotwell notes, “In the United States, there are more jobs in the Independent Parts Supply (IPS) sector today than there were in 1979 when membership in the UAW peaked at one and a half million. Profits, as well as jobs, are up in IPS. But wages are down.” But the top brass of the union refuses to put up a fight. They sell concessionary contracts in exchange for job security. The problem is that layoffs continue even after workers accept the concessions. “Job security” turns out to be smoke and mirrors.

The idea of labor–management cooperation is, unfortunately, not unique to the UAW. What is particularly shocking, however, is the length the auto industry has gone to ensure that cooperation. The companies provide direct money to officials for “joint funds” programs.

While joint funds support many programs negotiated in our national contract, the funds are controlled by a corporation separate from GM and the UAW. GM supplies all the money for this separate corporation, but the method of funding is negotiated in our national contract. Half the board of directors of this tax-exempt corporation are UAW VIPs. These people control the programs and the money. About a third of our International staff receives salaries, allotments, and expenses from this separate corporation. In other words, GM funnels money into the hands of UAW reps through the conduit of this separate corporation.

If your union officials are so far in bed with the bosses that all you can see are indistinguishable lumps under the sheets, it would be easy to get demoralized. Not Shotwell. Instead he fought back, urged members to do the same, and helped create the Soldiers of Solidarity. His newsletter was not just working-class journalism; it was an organizing tool. He instructed members on work-to-rule methods and helped conduct a “vote no” campaign on substandard contracts. It’s an example from which all union members can learn, no matter what industry they are in. Indeed, his struggle feels rather universal at times.

I am used to fighting with management. I have accepted that it is part of my job to force management to provide us with the tools and the resources we need to manufacture quality products. It’s nonsense, but it’s the Delphi system. I am accustomed to calling out the union to enforce quality standards, safe work practices, and strict adherence to process control instructions.

Substitute “manufacture quality products” with “teach quality education,” or “provide quality health care,” or “deliver quality service,” and substitute Delphi with any employer name you like, and that quote is recognizable to any worker.

The nature of the book, composed of individual newsletters, lends itself to some repetition. The most disturbing repetition, however, is that after we finish the story of Delphi, we’re treated to an equally poignant tragedy of the Big Three playing almost the exact same game.

The upside, as Shotwell observes, is that “There’s a fire that burns in the hearts of workers that can’t be snuffed out.” This is a book for those of us with that fire.

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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