Auto Workers Strike:
Drawing the Line in Flint
Revolutionary Worker #965, July 12, 1998"I don't think middle class America is going to survive, I really don't... We want security for ourselves, for our children, not our jobs shipped off to Mexico or China. It doesn't look like that kind of security is gonna happen. My grandfathers worked at GM. My father worked at GM. My aunts and uncles work at GM. I work at GM. But I hope my son gets into another field because I think this has no future. If GM moves out of Flint, there's gonna be no more Flint--no more banks, no more doctors or dentists. It's gonna be a ghost town. This is not a wages issue. We're doing this not just for ourselves but for the town of Flint and other GM towns."
A veteran autoworker in Flint, Michigan,
on the picket line with her
9-year-old son next to her
The Revolutionary Worker went to the picket lines outside the General Motors Metal Fabricating plant in Flint, Michigan. The autoworkers there shut down two General Motors plants in early June, and stopped the flow of key parts like car hoods, spark plugs and engine cradles.
This action by 8,400 workers in the United Auto Workers (UAW) has placed tremendous pressure on the giant GM corporation to meet their demands. The lack of parts has already forced GM to shut down most of its plants in North America, including 26 of 29 assembly plants and over 100 parts plants. At least 172,000 workers are idle.
General Motors, the largest U.S. auto corporation, generally maintains a 70-day stockpile of new cars. So there are no reports that auto dealers have had to shut down yet. But, after a month of strike, many GM showrooms are already running out of their best-selling car lines. GM claims that the strike has already cost the corporation $1.8 billion.
Officially, this strike is over local grievances at the GM Metal Fabricating plant and the Delphi Automotives Systems, Flint East Parts plant. Such local grievances are the only allowed legal basis for strikes, as long as the current GM contract is in effect. But the workers told the RW that, in their eyes, this is part of a much larger fight over the future of their families, of Flint itself, and of a way of life in the United States--they say they are striking against the elimination of jobs and major changes GM wants to impose on existing plants.
The Deal That Turned Shaky
Flint, Michigan is a classic company town--dominated by General Motors and auto plants. And there was a time, not so many years ago, when many of the workers of Flint thought they had made a deal--not just the legal contract with their employer --but a firm lifetime deal with America itself.
Many believed that if they showed up on the line every day, worked hard, paid their bills, and played by the rules--that this system would take care of them.
Unionized auto workers routinely make between $40,000 and $50,000 a year. A small aristocracy of skilled tradesmen, a few percent of the workers, get lots of overtime and often make as high as $100,000 a year. And the auto contracts have generally guaranteed the workers medical coverage, vacations, pensions, and almost full pay during the first year of any layoff. It meant owning homes and sending kids to college.
Many of these workers saw such security and middle class lifestyle as part of their birthright--as a social compact between them and American society itself. They expected a similar (or better) future for their kids.
Many of the workers in Flint even thought their arrangement was an excellent deal. And when the time came for wars, many of them fought for the system and were proud that they raised their sons and daughters to go off to wars.
When General Motors faced intense competition from Japanese auto companies in the '70s and '80s, many autoworkers promoted a patriotic "Buy America" campaign. In the minds of a significant section of autoworkers, loyalty to the United States and loyalty to General Motors went hand in hand with their own interests.
There have, of course, been many grievances between the workers and GM over the years. In Flint the memories of the historic sitdown strike of 1937 are still alive. But despite that, many in this relatively well-paid section of U.S. workers had come to believe that they were in a two-way partnership with General Motors.
Then that same corporation, which the workers had made so rich and powerful, coldly and systematically started slashing their lives and their town to shreds.
"GM Stands for Greed Monster"
Many Flint strikers started their conversations with the RW by saying their fathers, brothers, sisters and other relatives all worked at GM and they are the ones who built up GM to where it is today. The answer, they said, GM now gives to all that hard work and loyalty is to move out jobs. They feel betrayed.
One striker said, "The UAW has shown over the last 15 years that they're willing to work with GM, but we're not gonna work with them until all our jobs are gone."
Another said, "I don't see how you can get loyalty and enthusiasm from your employees when you're constantly threatening them with their livelihood. GM stands for Greed Monster. They've come out in the papers and said they don't owe any loyalty to their workers, only to their stockholders. But they want our loyalty."
Over the last two decades, General Motors and the other auto companies have steadily moved more and more of their investments away from towns like Flint--to parts of the U.S. and the Third World where working people can be hired much more cheaply.
The social compact that took shape in the years around World War 2 barely lasted into a second generation, and by the 1980s started to look like a broken promise.
Nationally GM cut its U.S.-based wage workers in half since the mid-1980s--from about 400,000 in 1985 to 218,000 today.
GM has cut its workforce in Flint from 77,000 to 27,000 over the last 20 years. Many factories closed. Homes boarded up. Families separated as the younger generations had to leave to find work. Michael Moore's biting movie Roger and Me captures that decline of the "Automobile Capital of the World." For the workers at General Motors and for the people of Flint, it feels like a calculated execution of their hometown.
The RW reporter said, "We were at the picketline outside the plant, on a major street. And the honking of cars passing by, the show of support, was so loud and so constant that it was hard for us to get the workers' remarks down on tape. The local newspaper, the Flint Journal, did a poll in town that showed 67 percent of people backed the strikers and only 17 percent backed the company. The support in Flint is overwhelming--people don't see this as a struggle for a few more benefits or a bigger retirement--they believe these autoworkers are fighting for the town itself."
The media's industry experts claim that GM may cut its workforce even further, down to 150,000 wage workers in the years ahead. When 100,000 GM workers retire over the next five years, will a new generation step into those jobs? Will wages, conditions and security of those jobs be anything like what the post-World War 2 generation worked out?
Drawing a Line in the Sand
The trigger for the current strike was GM's refusal to honor their local contract promise to invest an additional $300 million in their Flint plants. In the workers' eyes, that investment was a promise to keep production and jobs in Flint. But GM backed out of the plan, after the first $120 million in investments, and now demands major changes in the work rules of the plants. For example, GM has demanded a much higher productivity in the welding areas of one plant--where the work is already brutal, hot, and heavy with dangerous fumes.
On the picket line, one worker told the RW that GM had eliminated all job classifications in the plant--giving management the power to move workers from one job to another as they saw fit. The worker remarked that the workers' union had agreed to such new company powers--because GM had promised more jobs in exchange. Not only was that promise broken--but now the company threatened to shut the Flint plants completely if the workers didn't agree to new, even more drastic changes.
The workers on the picket lines felt it was time to draw a line in the sand, and shut down GM nationally.
Grappling with Global Issues
Over and over again, these workers have been told that they have to adjust to "global realities."
And the demands of the company are focused on the word "productivity." Many of the GM workers have developed a sense of what all that means.
They told the RW repeatedly that corporations like General Motors are eager to exploit workers in Third World countries and are giving the workers in Flint a choice--lower your conditions to Third World levels, or lose your jobs.
One woman striker said: "We breathe all kinds of crap. It's over 100. If they feel that we're not productive, then they need to come out of their air-conditioned offices, put on gloves and come down and show us what being productive means."
The RW reporter remarked that there seemed to be little hostility among the strikers toward those Third World workers. This contrasts rather sharply with extremely backward anti-Japanese sentiments that were widespread among U.S. autoworkers in previous years.
One woman striker said: "The Mexican GM workers are GM workers. They should be behind us just like we would be behind them if they went on strike. GM always wants to turn us against each other." A postal worker who was there to support the strikers said that U.S. corporations don't care how badly they pollute Mexico.
One skilled tradesman described to the RW and to the other workers on the picket line what conditions are like in GM's Thailand plants. At one point General Motors had offered him a transfer to Thailand to work at their operations there, and he had gone for a look. He said he was shocked at the dangerous conditions and toxic fumes forced on the Thai workers. He described how the U.S. corporations were coldly exploiting the poorest people of Thailand, especially the women. In one factory, he saw a woman working at her machine with her baby at her feet. Meanwhile, right over her head was a tiny loft where the woman for the next shift was sleeping with her baby. The women were paid so little that they were forced live there in the factory. Their children are raised right there in the dangerous conditions of the plant floor. And the alternative for them, he said, was often another nightmare: the giant Bangkok sex industry that serves tourists from the West and Japan.
Most of the workers on the Flint picket lines seemed to believe that the workers in countries like Mexico just needed unions similar to the United Auto Workers. They believe that such workers could somehow achieve the wages and conditions of U.S. workers through trade union struggle. In general, they did not seem to know that Mexican workers have a long and militant history of trade union activity--and that they are held in their oppressive conditions by the U.S. domination over their country.
One striker expressed a common view when he said: "I think all these Third World countries, where they're moving all their factories to and exploiting all these workers, you're gonna have to see those people just get tired of that. That's gonna help us a lot. I wish the UAW would get involved in organizing the Mexican workers... Then at least GM would have some accountability."
They were also unaware that U.S. trade unions have long been "involved" in the Third World countries--primarily helping the U.S. ruling class and the CIA carry out counterinsurgency there, and thereby helping maintain the oppression of the people.
The skilled tradesman who had been to Thailand made some interesting observations. He mentioned to the RW that he thought the Chinese revolutionary leader Mao Tsetung had much to say on how the exploitation in the Third World could be ended. He referred to Mao's famous saying that "political power grows from the barrel of a gun." He added, "When you travel the world, you realize just how valid that is." He described how the issues of Flint were tied to far larger contradictions, adding, "I would like to think the strike will help but I think change will not come through peaceful means."
There was a common sentiment that this strike was a necessary stand against the destruction of jobs--but that something even more powerful would be needed to finally solve these problems.
Over and over again workers on the picket lines mentioned that GM had made $6.9 billion in profits last year. One worker expressed the common sentiment: "We all understand GM is in business to make money but when is enough enough?"
This strike is already the longest and most costly strike GM has faced in almost 30 years. All kinds of forces in the U.S. ruling class have been saying that GM must "tough" it out no matter what the cost. GM has cut medical and dental coverage to the Flint strikers. And the company has cut off dental coverage to the non-striking workers laid off around the country. The workers themselves seem prepared for a long struggle if necessary. Meanwhile two other GM plants--in Dayton, Ohio--may be coming out on strike over similar issues.
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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