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Currently, the United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America, UAW, is on strike. A strike is a voted upon agreement by an organization to gain concessions from ones employer. This is also known as a labor strike, which is a collectively bargained agreement voted on by its members in good standing with their union. The international executive union leadership has the authority to enforce and publicly announce a strike.
Workers can raise many issues which they deem are unfair, under represented and unresolved. Some of the trending issues with this strike is unfair wages, health benefits and retiree benefits.
How did we get here :
In late 2008, General Motors was on a downward business model along with Chrysler and facing bankruptcy. In any business model, bankruptcy isn’t factored into the equation. Once this factor was inevitable, a quick strategy was needed and a viable remedy needed to be birthed. The United States of America government while President George H.W. Bush was in office started drafting a financial bailout plan to aid the struggling automotive giant.
The sentiment of many people was “ how can a country, with such a rich international automobile influence fail?” With that being the underlying question and loosing world wide business positioning, perhaps the right move was to save these American icons. This was important to many people, to be that beacon of hope to the world, that in tough times people will show loyalty and solidarity.
In 2009, our newly elected President of the USA Barack Obama, inherited the burden of the automotive industry financial dilemma. How was he going to fix this problem?President Obama’s messaging was “ be the change you want to see”. That impactful statement resonated with the masses and established the platform for the Big Three (General Motors, Ford Motors and Chrysler) workers to help the company help save their jobs. Ford Motor was the only one of the three not in bankruptcy status. This was the time of hope and “one America” If this statement was said by the President of the USA , then it had to be the gold standard of reforming this industry. This mind set gave the workers a voice, confidence and empowerment, along with the suppliers of these companies. For many workers it seemed right to save their job in hopes of a stronger comeback in the near future. Workers are the most valuable asset, and with that understanding, the workers collectively agreed to numerous concessions. The Big Three workers were visible and showed enduring presence and solidarity.
Concessions are items that are agreed upon to move forward with negotiations. The government gave a financial bailout, the Big Three Corporates made internal restructuring changes. The workers made changes; COLA, Retiree benefits , wage adjustments, (new hires being paid less wages to do the work) plant closings (uprooting their family balance) and combining skill level classifications. Perhaps feeling confident that the Big Two ( General Motors and Chrysler ) would gain financial momentum , their sacrifice and loyalty would be appreciated and rewarded, because we are “one America.” In the last few years, the Big Two have repaid the government bailout, and have made billions of dollars in profits. It appears that all of their commitments have been satisfied and finances are at an all time high. The workers are a huge part of the success story that’s woven into these billion dollar companies. Now, the workers have been awaiting their “piece of the pie”, Isn’t it time to sing, shout and be happy?
The President of the UAW during the Big Three restructuring crisis was Ronald Gettlelfinger. According to Wikipedia “Gettelfinger is an outspoken advocate for national single-payer health care in the United States. Under Gettelfinger’s leadership, the UAW lobbied for fair trade agreements that included provisions. He opposed any additional worker concessions until the then-current contract expired in 2011.”
In June 2010, Robert Thompson” Bob” King became the newly elected UAW President. He is a lawyer, leader and labor activist. According to Democracy NOW! during his presidency and auto bailout, Bob King stated: “We want companies to know two things. One, if you work with our membership, you respect our membership, you give them a voice in the workplace and the decisions, we’re going to help you make the best quality product, the best price. If you’re unfair to workers, you’ve got a — it’s going to cost you a lot of money to not treat workers fairly.” “ The best business decision is to work with our membership, and that’s what we’re hoping they’ll do.”
In June 2014, Dennis Williams, became the newly elected President of the UAW. Williams previously served as the union’s Secretary-Treasurer, elected at the UAW’s 35th Constitutional Convention in June 2010. According to uaw.org , Dennis Williams quote regarding solidarity, “Over the past four years, the UAW has forged a positive path. We have put ourselves in a better position. We have looked death in the eyes during the recession. We have bought our union back to a foundation of fiscal responsibility for our membership and we have fought the fight. And we will continue to do so. Brothers and sisters, we are in solidarity together forever.”
In June 2018, Gary Jones was elected UAW President. Jones previously was the Region 5, Director. According to autonews.com “We invested in you. Now it’s your turn to invest in us. I’m here to fight for you. Knowing our core values, knowing who we are and knowing what the UAW is about could not be more important than it is today.”
In Charles Dickens novel, A Tale of Two Cities, with opening lines, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”
In the referenced Tale of Two Cities, the UAW has faced many challenges and conflicts. As with any great leader there are qualities that can not be ignored. Being in harmony and unified in the fight for socio-economic justice. This is in relationship to how one progresses in their society and economy with contributing factors such as education, income and occupation. Great leaders show creativity, commitment, confidence, and accountability. At some level within the UAW leadership these skills have been evident and should be appreciated.
Can the strike disappear?
Walter Phillip Reuther was an activist, labor unionist and civil rights advocate, who built the United Automobile Workers into one of the worlds most progressive organizations in US history. He is quoted by uaw.org with “Our membership are the strength of the UAW, and the membership and the families of our members, they are the purpose of the UAW. And in the years ahead, this union must remain true to its commitment to the welfare and the well-being of our rank and file. This union is not about Solidarity House; it is not about your local union headquarters; this union is about the men and women that we represent, and behind them their families.” (1970 UAW Convention, April 1970)
In modern times a strike consists of union members who walk out of the work site and form a picket line. The purpose of a picket line is to show outwardly as a tool to persuade workers to not enter the building. It’s used to represent that workers are in disagreement with their working conditions. A sit down strike is where the workers remain in the worksite preventing management from entering the building. This style is utilized so “scabs” can’t perform the work of the strikers. Scabs are workers who willingly work in spite of the strikers refusal to work.
“In 1936, General Motors (GM) was the largest corporation in the world and held many plants in Flint, Michigan, about 60 miles north of Detroit.” With working conditions becoming progressively intolerable, intervention became necessary. It was “New Year’s Eve, December 31, 1936 when the workers sat down in the plants and refused to leave. General Motors retaliated by turning off the heat in the plant. In solidarity with the Flint strikers, Reuther led a strike at Detroit’s Fleetwood Plant, where bodies were made for GM’s luxury vehicle, the Cadillac. Support strikes were also called in Oakland, California, Pontiac, Michigan and St. Louis, Missouri. Autoworkers around the nation engaged in action in support of the Flint sit-down strikers. “ (See Sit-down strike)
After many days of a hard fought battle , 44 to be exact, General Motors recognized the workers rights and the first collective bargaining agreement was birthed. This event set the stage for a five year labor contract with exchange of a no strike clause in the agreement. Workers gained better wages, health care benefits, pensions and became new members to the middle class society. Chrysler workers went on strike for four weeks, Reuther negotiated a successful collective bargained agreement with the UAW. Now, on to Ford Motor. This was a four year fight. Mr. Ford was steadfast and adamant about his refusal to allow his company to become unionized. He fought with fervor, and positioned a vigilante team to enforce his decision of no union within his company. After numerous publicized killings, beatings, and abuse of people, the news media shined a spot light on this abnormality. This practice wasn’t what Ford wanted highlighted, therefore he conceded and the UAW was recognized.
The Big Three became the standard bearer for the world. It hasn’t been easy. Walter Reuther’s vision along with his brothers (Victor and Roy) and many, many others have made a visible and noticeable impact on collective bargaining. His model has proven successful down through the years. As each generation faces the challenges of their times, it won’t be an easy fight. However, the vision of our fore workers sacrifices for annual raises, cost of living allowances, health benefits, pension plans, educational accommodations, unemployment benefits, and family work life balance are all necessary. UAW Strike, can it disappear? In the words of the current UAW President -Gary Jones, as he sat across the table from GM CEO Mary Barra, “We invested in you. Now it’s your turn to invest in us.” We are the voice of the American worker, the defenders of the middle class.”
The UAW Strike can not disappear. As in the formative years of a recognized presence, that same spirit is what it will take to succeed.