JANUARY/FEBRUARY 1990 - VOLUME 11 - NUMBERS 1 AND 2
E D I T O R I A L
Union Jobs, Union Power
The dominance of the U.S. auto companies has been severely eroded over the last 20 years, and especially in the last decade. The United Auto Workers (UAW) union has suffered along with the industry. As the number of workers employed by the car manufacturers declined, the union lost a significant portion of its membership; from 1979 to 1989, UAW membership dropped by approximately 500,000, one-third of its total.
Focusing on the common plight of the union and the industry, the UAW lost sight of the fundamental conflicts that exist between workers and management. Since 1982, the UAW has adopted a strategy it calls "non-adversarial labor relations" or "jointness." The union has developed an increasingly cooperative relationship with management in an attempt to help U.S. corporations compete with foreign, particularly Japanese, manufacturers and preserve UAW members' jobs.
Accepting responsibility for the Big Three's (General Motors, Chrysler and Ford's) competitiveness was a mistake for the union, as Victor Reuther, who was instrumental in building the UAW, points out. While workers have an interest in the continued viability of their employer, it is management which has the ability and the responsibility to ensure a corporation's long- term success. "We [never] had anything to say about where they invested their profits," Reuther says, and these are the key decisions which determine a corporation's ability to compete.
To promote the auto companies' competitiveness, the UAW made a number of major contractual concessions; in exchange, the Big Three agreed to guarantee the job security of their unionized workforce. The promise of job security has been broken, however. The 1987 union contracts with the Big Three allowed the companies to close factories which were already scheduled to be closed, including nine GM facilities, but it prohibited any further plant closings. As the Big Three and especially GM's market share continued to decline, however, the car companies had more production capacity than they needed. They couldn't close plants, so they announced that the plants were being "idled," even though everyone connected with the industry takes it for granted that the "idlings" are permanent. GM has closed five plants through the "idling" mechanism. Chrysler has avoided the semantic game; in the last two years it has simply announced the closing of plants in Kenosha, Wis. and Detroit, Mich. and has scheduled the closing of a St. Louis, Mo. plant immediately following the expiration of the contract this fall. Tens of thousands of other workers have been laid off from factories which remain open but have cut production levels.
As the UAW enters the 1990 bargaining session with job security still at the top of its list of concerns, the union must recognize the failure of its "jointness" strategy. Protecting workers' jobs and communities' livelihoods will require the UAW to make demands that the auto manufacturers will not readily accept.
First, the union must win a ban on all overtime while workers remain laid off. Each of the Big Three, and Ford in particular, regularly forces its employees to work overtime. Often some workers work mandatory 60 hour weeks while others remain at home, laid off. For the companies, the time-and-a-half pay given to overtime workers is less than the cost of full-time wages plus benefits for additional workers.
Second, the UAW should demand of the auto manufacturers, and launch a national fight for, a shorter work week. If there are not enough jobs for all of the nation's potential employees, each employee should work less, without a reduction in pay. The auto manufacturers can well afford this reform. While the U.S. companies have lost market share, they have earned huge profits. For example, although GM's share of the U.S. market fell 11 points, to 35 percent, in the 1980s, the company earned $4.22 billion in profits in 1989.
Third, the UAW should require the auto companies to use single shifts at two plants instead of closing one plant and operating another for two shifts. This would protect workers with high seniority and geographically spread the misery of layoffs, thus preventing the decimation of whole communities. Moreover, it would prevent the companies from pitting plants and communities against one another by threatening to move production unless certain concessions are made. It would also leave open the possibility of recalling laid off workers if business picks up. There is a valuable trade-off for the apparent resulting inefficiency of operating more than the minimum number of plants needed to meet present demand: once a plant is shut down, it either is permanently closed or deteriorates from lack of use. Single shifts would preserve manufacturing capacity for future needs.
A plan to promote job security, shorten the work week and defend communities' economic health will earn broad public support, an asset labor unions in the United States have squandered in the last 40 years by focusing excessively on wages. A return to its militant tradition, coupled with an agenda that will restore public sympathy for workers, might enable the UAW, the pattern setter for U.S. unions, to reinvigorate a labor movement which is currently in disarray.