Ever since West Virginia teachers and staff won their stunning victory against a state government coming after their health insurance in March 2018, this country has witnessed a series of strikes marked by a kind of boldness and combativeness that hasn’t been seen for a generation. Teacher strikes in Oklahoma, Arizona, and Los Angeles that won large pay increases; a two month-long strike at Marriott hotels in eight different cities in late 2018 that won double-digit raises; Google employee walkouts protesting workplace sexual misconduct in late 2018; a victorious strike at the Stop and Shop retail chain that closed down hundreds of stores in New England for 11 days in April 2019. And now General Motors.
Involving 49,000 workers and about to enter is second week as we go to press, the nationwide strike at the automaker — which was the historic birthplace of the most militant labor movement in the US during the 1930s — is an unmistakable sign of the enduring aftershocks of West Virginia. If the GM workers win this fight, it would be even more electrifying. It would revive the strike weapon as a viable means of improving conditions for millions of private sector workers, and it would signal a long-awaited upturn in the US labor movement that had been so thoroughly destroyed in the wake of the Reagan years. Already, this strike by the very sort of workers Trump pretended to represent has starkly exposed his anti-working class nature.
Union bureaucracy limits struggle
Regrettably, the United Automobile Workers (UAW) leadership that called the GM strike is seriously limited in its ability to lead the strike to victory. Well before the recent charges brought against current President Gary Jones and other senior UAW officials for embezzlement of union funds, it was revealed that Fiat/Chrysler America paid UAW officials millions in bribes to extract concessions in their 2011 and 2015 contract negotiations. Such outright corruption is an extreme manifestation of a fundamental problem with union bureaucracy — the layer of full-time union officials who specialize in negotiating with the employer and who don’t work day to day in the workplaces they represent.
Although union officials are often themselves former militants, once they occupy top positions in the union machinery, the preservation of that machinery becomes their overriding concern. Confrontations with management are to be avoided wherever possible, to the extent that confrontation poses any risk to the continued existence of the union. From management’s perspective, such restraint on the union leadership’s part is what makes unions worth tolerating: cultivating bureaucrats who can more effectively tame rank and file militancy is less costly than the alternative of a frontal assault that risks galvanizing the entire workforce.
But the union bureaucracy is also sometimes compelled to fight, for they also owe their existence to legitimacy in the eyes of the membership. Being a fundamentally democratic (albeit capitalist) institution, unions must deliver a modicum of material gains to members in order to survive, and in the process of fighting for such gains workers get a first glimpse of their collective power to transform society. That is why socialists must always side with unions against the state and the employer class.
However, even when they do call a strike, the union bureaucracy’s first instinct is to settle as quickly as possible with minimal gains. To that end, they take pains to maintain tight control over the conduct of the strike and limit rank and file initiatives. This is indeed what seems to be happening in the GM strike.
First of all, it is quite possible that the strike call was motivated by a sudden need to prove the UAW leadership was not completely in the pockets of the bosses, in response to the corruption scandals that erupted in the immediate run-up to the strike. The apparent lack of preparation (e.g. no contract campaign to energize members) and haphazard organization (GM production workers were made to cross picket lines of Aramark employees in GM plants represented by UAW, who went on strike a day earlier) lends weight to this conjecture. As such the leadership cannot be trusted to see this fight through. They are not even disclosing their bargaining demands, there has been little to no official public outreach efforts, and it has been reported that handmade picket signs are not allowed on some picket lines.
Rank and file militancy shows the way
What’s remarkable is the magnificent turnout of rank and file members despite all the shortcomings of the leadership. This reflects outrage at the unprecedented aggressiveness of GM. In contract negotiations GM has demanded a less-than-inflation rate of wage growth (2%), increase in employee share of health insurance costs (from 3% to 15%), and no change in the hated two-tiered wage system (agreed to in 2007) that discriminates against new hires and temporary workers — when GM raked in $11 billion in last year’s profit alone.
There is a palpable sense that concession after concession following the Great Recession have yielded nothing but demands for yet more sacrifice on the workers’ part, despite the supposed recovery of the system — a common theme running through all the recent spate of strikes. On Sep 17, GM made the vicious move of dropping strikers’ health coverage. The company is clearly going for blood. Any sign of weakness on the union’s part will only fuel their bloodlust.
The strike has literally become a life and death struggle. To win, initiatives at the grassroots will be crucial. Strikers must form a nationwide network of rank and file militants that can sustain action in the absence of direction from above, and if necessary, act in defiance of the leadership should it try to end the strike prematurely. They can start by organizing workplace meetings to discuss what to do next. They can set up a GM-wide Facebook group to keep track of developments in all 52 strike sites, share tactics, etc. They can demand open bargaining. They can organize community outreach. It was rank and file activity such as these that emboldened the West Virginia teachers to defy union leaders’ premature call to pull the strike, ensuring their ultimate victory. Rank and file activists at Chrysler similarly persuaded the membership to reject a terrible agreement imposed by the UAW leadership in 2015 and managed to win significant improvements to the two-tier system.
Rank and file GM workers should fight for real leadership over their strike. Their fight is too important to be left to corrupt leaders. While the strike will be won by initiative of the workers themselves, solidarity is also crucial. One positive sign is the Teamsters’ pledge to honor GM’s picket lines, and the fast food workers and other supporters delivering sandwiches, pizza, and water to the picket lines. Socialists must do everything they can to support the strikers. Initiatives by the Democratic Socialists of America to visit the pickets and by eco-socialists to invite strikers to speak at Green New Deal meetings are also welcome in this regard.