Strike at GM: The union obstacle in the US

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Workers have to face violence or the threat of it when they struggle, but they also have to deal with all the manoeuvres of the unions and their political allies.

In the US, at the end of September, there was a classic example of a union strike at General Motors, where workers, worried about job security and retirement benefits, found themselves in a two day strike which resulted in the union (the UAW) agreeing to a further decline in workers' living standards.

At the beginning the strike of 73,000 GM workers, which shut down all 82 GM facilities in the US and stopped supplies to plants in Canada and Mexico, was hailed as the first strike at GM since 1998, the first national strike in the auto sector in 3 years and the first nationwide strike at GM since 1970. It was said that GM had enough cars and trucks to withstand a short strike as, at the beginning of September, it had a 65-day supply. Yet despite the underlying militancy that the union was responding to, it felt confident enough to agree to a settlement with the company that was greeted with delight by the media, Wall Street and other car companies. The pressure is off GM to deal with retiree health care, which becomes the responsibility of the union, which in turn becomes a major investor with the funds it has been provided. There will also be a two-tier pay and benefit system where newly hired workers will get far less, maybe even half, the package for current workers.

The reason for the relief in the ruling class is the state of the US car industry. Detroit's Big Three (GM, Ford and Chrysler) lost a collective $15 billion last year, as they face more competition in the US market. They had 73 percent of the home market in 1996, down to 54 percent last year and now less than 50%. GM's market share has gone from 40% in the mid 1980s to under 24% today. Against this Japanese and European car makers based in the South are paying their workers less as their market share increases. 100,000 car workers jobs have gone in the last four years. It's a very real crisis in the car industry and the workers are having to pay for it.

Leftists support unions

The groups on the left wing of capitalism (Trotskyists, Stalinists etc) complain about the union bureaucracies, how they betray workers and ally themselves to a capitalist party, the Democrats. This is not headline news, as even a CBS report could spell out that the UAW had " agreed to massive buyout plans and changes to retiree health care to help the automakers." Denouncing ‘business unionism', where unions seem to go out of their way to help the capitalists, is the stock-in-trade of the left. The World Socialist Web Site denounces the UAW for "collaborating with GM on its restructuring plans that eliminated 34,000 UAW jobs." But, like all the left, it still holds to a union framework (just less bureaucratic), presents the 1930s as a golden age for unionism and wants the car industry taken into state ownership.

The same problems are posed to workers across the world. The crisis of the capitalist economy lies behind the attacks of the bourgeoisie. The capitalist state can't be used by workers, and, since unions have long ago become the main obstacle to the development of workers' struggles, workers clearly need means of struggle that serve the need for self-organisation and a growing solidarity in the ranks of the working class. Car 2/10/7


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