Workers’ Fightback – Indianapolis and South Africa Wage Battles

Workers at the Indianapolis General Motors plant are on collision course with the company, the political and media establishment, and the bosses of their United Auto Workers union, after UAW bureaucrats were shouted down and driven out of a meeting last week. Dramatic footage of this confrontation can be viewed here.

All union mandarins are tied to the employers by their defence of the profit system, and their opposition to workers’ control. Since the economic crisis began in 2007, union leaders around the world have helped employers impose the burden on the backs of their own membership. But UAW chiefs directly profit from increased exploitation, thanks to Obama’s restructuring of the industry. In May 2009, they signed up for a 17.5% stake in GM, and these profits find their way into the pockets of union executives. For example, Mike Grimes, the Assistant Director who fled the Indianapolis meeting raked in $132,155 last year. The union also owns a luxury golf course, which is primarily used by tops, as was pointed out by one angry Indianapolis worker:

“The UAW is doing this because they own stock in GM, and they want to keep their business coming in. Once they finish the deal, they’ll build another 100-million-dollar golf course with our strike fund.”

The bureaucrats’ aim is to slash wages by almost fifty per cent – from $29 an hour to $15.50 – before GM sell the plant to former Wall Street speculator J.D. Norman. Local 23 explicitly rejected the plan by an overwhelming 384 votes to 22 in May, but Grimes and others were trying to re-open the contract before they were thrown out.

The workers at the stamping plant toil in often hellish conditions, with floor level temperatures reaching 48 degrees centigrade in summer. It is common for people to pass out from heat exhaustion, and there is a lack of drinkable water.

“I’d like the see a UAW official do what we do every day; to avoid the molten metal and walk on the oily floors,” said Carla. “I invite anyone who thinks we make too much money to shadow me for a day; this plant is a hellhole. There are cockroaches everywhere and half the bathrooms don’t work.”

According to the ‘logic’ of capitalist globalization, workers have no choice but to compete with their class brothers and sisters around the world, by constantly accepting ever worse pay and conditions. In the wake of the Indianapolis meeting, this is the line that has been trotted about by UAW executives, the mayor of Indianapolis, and semi-fascist national pundit Rush Limbaugh. But this ‘logic’ can only be pushed so far; at a certain point the rate of exploitation becomes intolerable, and working people fight back.

The Indianapolis GM workers have shown their unwillingness to have their rate of exploitation almost doubled, but this raises the vital question: what is their alternative to the capitalist ‘race to the bottom’? The only other possibility is workers’ control, and if they are to have a chance of achieving this, the stampers need to make a broad appeal to car and other workers in the United States around the world. This appeal must be made independently of the union hierarchy, who will do anything they can to strangle the rebellion.

One million public sector workers demanding a living wage in South Africa face the same challenge, following the start of an open-ended general strike last Wednesday. President Jacob Zuma and his African National Congress government are offering a 7% increase, while the strikers’ demand stands at 8.6%, plus another 200 rand per month in housing allowance. For the moment, the Congress of South African Trade Unions leaders are talking tough, but behind the scenes they will be working with the government. Since the ANC came to power under Nelson Mandela in the 1990s, COSATU have been an enthusiastic partner in forcing through privatizations, spending and wage cuts.

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2 thoughts on “Workers’ Fightback – Indianapolis and South Africa Wage Battles

  1. Erika

    I would love to follow Carla around for a day, and then she could follow me.

    Regarding the “hellish” conditions of GM, my brother had a summer intern job GM, at the Fort Wayne plant, while he was in college last summer. He said his job was incredibly easy and he made very close to what I make, a college educated person who has responsibility for people's lives! I could go on for a while about what I know about GM workers and the some of the workers, as I have other resources as well!

    I wish it was so easy to just demand more money for what I do like they do, and say to our CEO, look what we do down here in this 'HELLHOLE', (operating room) you couldn't do this, we're first line health care workers! And I make probably a tenth of what you make sir! But of course, if I did that, I would probably get fired. LOL And actually I do realize that if we all made more, more, more, how would the hospital pay for all the technology that we have to assist in cutting edge treatment, and quality patient care. I see both sides, to unionism.

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  2. Adam Ford

    Well that's great for your brother Erika, but his job seems to be the exception these days, because the trend is for worsening conditions and increasing rates of exploitation (wages and benefits being a lower share of turnover).

    The point is this: we get nowhere by saying that such and such a worker has actually got it pretty easy, when compared to someone else. In fact, that's what the rich want us to do. This is why it's a common line of attack in the media whenever workers stand up for themselves. This leads to a downward spiral of wages and conditions, as workers around the world accept less and less, just so they can keep their jobs.

    On your second point, yes you would almost certainly be sacked if you alone demanded that your CEO gave you a big pay rise. That's how unions formed originally – people would make these demands in numbers so large it would be very difficult to sack them all.

    There's no way that patient care should be sacrificed to pay for increased wages. But maybe your CEO should be, for a start. I'm sure you and your fellow workers could run the place much better than any CEO! And I presume your company is profit-making? So then the shareholders should be taken out of the equation as well. And the US government has recently spent trillions of dollars on the bankers who triggered the economic crisis – all this is money that theoretically could have gone into healthcare, rebuilding New Orleans for the poor people who lost their homes five years ago, repairing bridges…the list of things that needs doing goes on and on, and it's getting longer by the day!

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