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GM Buyouts No 'Christmas in March'
Media coverage and Internet dialogue key to empowering workers
Ronda Hauben (netizen2)     Print Article 
Published 2006-03-28 09:29 (KST)   

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If one were to look at some of the headlines in the U.S. press on March 23, the day after General Motors made an announcement to offer buyouts and early retirement to its hourly workforce, it might have seemed as if U.S. auto workers had a reason to celebrate Christmas in March. Headlines like "Generous GM", "In the Giving Spirit", "Take the Money and Run" appeared in the pages of newspapers around the country.

Other articles, like one in The Washington Post, raised the spectre of the previous "good years." The article explained, "The surprise here is not that the golden era for autoworkers has come to an end but that it lasted as long as it did." (1)

"A Gleam of Hope for GM" was the headline in the Business Week article announcing the recent GM moves. "The automaker has cut a deal -- a very generous one -- with the UAW that could put it on the road for lower costs." The writer explained how GM announced an early retirement plan for its hourly workers that would let them retire, with a certain incentive payment, depending on years of service, or just take a lay off, and be paid a lump sum payment. This the article tells us, will allow GM, and the parts company, Delphi, which GM spun off as a separate company, to substantially cut their hourly work force.

An online Web site noted that Google recorded 1,325 news stories about the GM/Delphi early retirement and buyout program. Despite the large number of news organizations covering this announcement, however, there has been little serious analysis in the mainstream media of the importance of what is happening or of its implications.

While most of the mainstream press carried articles expressing relief that the GM and Delphi corporations had found a way to lower the wages they pay to workers, there is another view of what is happening that has gotten little attention in the U.S. press.

In one of the rare articles raising a different viewpoint, Robert Kuttner writes in the Boston Globe:
"Who would make the cars? A new generation of lower-paid workers. It is a mark of GM's fragility that the UAW considers this about the best deal the union can get."
Kuttner notes that, "labor costs are actually about $10 an hour higher in Germany" than in the U.S., and yet the problem that GM is having doesn't seem to be a problem for the German auto makers. He proposes that the problem isn't workers' wages, but something else. What is wrong, he writes, is "management thinking and...the official free-market ideology."

Irrespective of the buyout and early retirement plan, Delphi has set March 30 as the deadline when it must have an agreement with the UAW or it threatens that it will file a motion on March 31 to void its contract with the UAW. A press release at the Delphi Web site announced:
"Delphi will continue talks in an effort to achieve a comprehensive agreement no later than March 30, 2006. Absent agreement with all parties, Delphi will file no later than March 31, 2006 its motion under Sections 1113 and 1114 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code to initiate the process of seeking court authorization to reject the collective bargaining agreements and terminate hourly post-retirement health plans and life insurance." (5)
Delphi is the largest auto parts company in the world. It employs 185,000 worldwide. In the U.S. it employs 50,000, with 33,650 of these employees are hourly workers. (6) In Mexico, Delphi employs over 70,000 workers.

In 1998, GM was encouraged by Wall Street analysts to take its parts operation and spin it off into a separate company. (7)

Given the size and the international scope of Delphi, there are serious questions raised about why it is declaring bankruptcy in its North American operations, but is allowed to continue its operations outside of North America without any effect of the bankruptcy declaration.

Among the workers who are affected by the Delphi bankruptcy, there is the suspicion that the bankruptcy is but a ploy to rid itself of a unionized workforce.

The response to the proposed buy out among many of the workers is confusion about whether it will benefit them to take it. Among the dissident workers, however, the issue raised is how the buyout will affect the future of labor in the U.S. and the living standard of the workers who follow them into the factories and other large corporations.

The dissident workers don't attribute the gains made by workers at companies like GM or Delphi to the generosity of the companies. Instead, as one worker explains, "The only thing we've ever been 'given' by the corporation is what they gave up when we had one hand twisted in their collar and the other hand ready to slap them down."

The fact that there are negotiations going on even though there has not been a membership decision to reopen the union contract, strikes some workers as an ominous sign. If they take early retirement, what is to guarantee them that they will get the retirement benefits they are promised. "No amount of concessions will ever appease them," is a view that is voiced about why it is a dead end for workers to go along with the early retirement proposed packages or the contract the UAW is negotiating with Delphi. A strategy of giving concessions, some workers claim, will only lead to more and more demands by the company. "No one should be negotiating in the middle of a contract," is a feeling that is expressed.

The fact that the early retirement offer is being agreed to by the UAW without consulting the membership and having a vote by the UAW membership, is seen as a confirmation of the loss of membership control over what the union officials do. This leaves out any role for the rank and file and their concerns.

Workers at Delphi or who are supporting the dissidents in UAW to oppose the anti-democratic means that the UAW is using, are looking back at the 1936-37 sit down strike and the militant tradition of the UAW.(8) Another important aspect of UAW history which is less well known, however, is the tradition of recognizing the need for a press which allows for debate among the rank and file on the issues that affect them. One auto worker, Carl Johnson, often explained the importance of such a press in a column he wrote in his local union newspaper, "The Searchlight," which was the official union newspaper of the Chevrolet Engine Plant in Flint, Michigan. Sit down strikers like Carl Johnson, and his son Kermit Johnson, who was one of the leaders of the Plant 4 sit down, had been part of the actions of 1936-1937 which made it possible to win the UAW.

In the years following the victory of the Flint Sit Down Strike, Carl Johnson advocated the need for an uncensored press for workers, a press that would make it possible to debate the issues important to the rank and file. (9)

Johnson explained the need to welcome all from the ranks of labor to be part of the discussion. He wrote:
"But who, from the ranks of Labor? Let them all speak -- that's what Free Speech was intended for! Let them all present their view in a forum. From that the reader will have a fair chance to decide." (October 29, 1949, "The Searchlight")
Johnson felt that most of the institutions in society during this period were controlled by the large corporations and so a press that could be independent was needed. He writes:
"We must bare in mind the obvious fact that our education institutions, the schools, the Daily press, the radio, etc. are all controlled by Big Business -- by that small section of the population which suffers little from the hardships of depression and war." (March 1, 1945, "The Searchlight")
He was not proposing a press that would be dominated by officials of the international union. Instead, the involvement and participation of the rank and file were critical to the vision Johnson had for such a press if it were to help to set a basis for democratic decision-making and actions. He writes:
"The rank and file...have nothing to lose by advancing ideas and opinions which may, for the time being, be at variance with popular concepts. Moreover, a rank and filer with ideas of change which promise greatly improved conditions for him as well as for his fellow workers has therein the necessary incentive to express those ideas. It is important to understand, therefore, that the future welfare of the rank and file depends largely upon the part the ranks play in shaping that future...." (January 11, 1951, "The Searchlight", These are excerpts are from "The Searchlight: the Voice of the Chevy Worker.")
The importance that Carl Johnson and other UAW pioneers attached to discussion and debate among the rank and file became embodied in the way they structured their local union newspapers. One such newspaper, "The Searchlight", the local union newspaper of UAW Local 659, in Flint, Michigan, was censored by the International Union in 1949/1950 and took up a fight against that censorship at the 1951 UAW convention. Losing their fight against the censorship, however, made it more difficult for them to carry on their program of continuing their fight for gains for labor.

Today, with the Internet, there is a new form of media making it possible to discuss and debate how to respond to the actions of corporations like Delphi and GM. The discussion on some online forums, newsgroups, and web sites recognizes that the effort to understand the problem that the Delphi bankruptcy poses is not one that can be solved quickly. Its not like "instant coffee" but more like understanding the need to plant "seeds" and "nurture the fruit." (10)
(1) "Laying to Rest a 'Generous' Way of Life" The Washington Post

(2) News & Features, By David Welch, BusinessWeek March 24, 2006

(3) From the Archives,
Auto News, Thursday, March 23, 2006

(4) Robert Kuttner, "Making U.S. Manufacturing Work" Boston Globe, March 25, 2006

(5)Delphi Docket (PDF)

(6) Critical Moment, January 26, 2006, "The Worker's Docket: A Summary of Facts and Ideas from the Delphi closings by Fred David"

(7) Detroit Free Press, "Time Line of GM and Delphi's Travails," March 23, 2006.

(8) Michael Hauben, "In Celebration: A Past To Remember, A Future To Mold: The 50th Anniversary Of The Flint Sit-Down Strike"

(9) Ronda Hauben, "The Story of the Searchlight"

(10) Some online forums and Web sites include: UAWforum Delphi Bankruptcy Discussion


Newsgroups on Usenet:

©2006 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Ronda Hauben

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