Since midnight on Monday, workers at General Motors plants in the U.S. have been called to what could become the largest industrial strike in the country in a decade. 50,000 of them are on strike today.
Unions subject workers’ needs to company profits
The call is signed by an old union, the United Auto Workers (UAW). It calls for wage improvements, access to health care and an end to the double wage system, which divides workers in various plants into “old” – with the agreed wage – and “new” workers with a notoriously lower wage. The union slogan is “We stood up for GM when they needed us,” which means that they “sacrificed” themselves for GM when it needed them and now want “GM to pay the favor back”.
This slogan not only sucks up to GM, it also whitewashes UAW… The union who accepted and justified as “necessary” the double tiered wage system in 2007 in order to “save the company”. In 2015, UAW, under pressure from its bases, entered into negotiations with GM to withdraw the system, arguing that “profits were high enough”. And as expected, with the union confining itself to proposals that put capital gains before the human needs claimed by the workers, the result was not only the failure to abolish the double wage system, but the imposition in 2015 of a triple tiered wage system in several plants, such as Lansing, which are currently on strike. The workers of this third level of wages barely earned 11 dollars per hour.
The unions of the companies along GM’s production chain show fragmented and contradictory interests, defending the interests of the companies where they are installed instead of those of the working class. Some unions, such as Teamsters – the truck drivers who deliver GM-produced vehicles – showed solidarity with the UAW strike. Others, like Unifor in Canada, which takes care of GM’s Canadian factories, found nothing better than to say that they understand the strike in the U.S., but that it will “cause temporary layoffs” in their workforce if it the strike is extended over time.
In other words, it is not only the UAW that weakens its own struggle, it is unions as a whole that are openly showing their role as framers and containers of the working class; acting for the needs of business and accumulation, both business by business and as an economic whole.
Workers fight for universal needs
Workers, when asked directly, not only refer to the insufficiency of their individual wages, but clearly show their indignation at being fragmented as a class into different wage groups and also at their reduced access to basic needs such as health. Akers, a worker who has been in GM for three and a half years, stated:
I install the passenger side headlight. He installs the driver side headlight. I make more money than he does. I have better health insurance than he does. It ain’t fair. It ain’t right. If you’re going to pay people to do a job, pay them all the same.
The workers who have joined the pickets organized by the UAW asserted:
We’re out here for job security, safe working conditions, health care. We’re just basically out here to support workers’ rights,” he said, noting, “We’re hoping for a short (strike), but prepared for whatever.
It’s not the union leadership, it’s the leadership by unions
In a country with a long history of corrupt unions, one of the appeals of the UAW is that it is a “clean” union. As if the personal honesty of the bureaucrats guaranteed that their political positions would serve the interests of the workers. However, the UAW has done nothing more than demonstrate throughout its history that it will enforce the interests of capital – that is, the profitability of the company – over the needs of workers, as it did in 2007 and 2015. Scandals with the FBI apart, this is a problem with all unions: union logic, the very essence of what a union is, makes them framers of workers and their workforce. Neither UAW nor any other union, no matter how “clean” it might be, would really improve the workers as a whole, that is, as a class.
The leadership of the struggle by trade unions guarantees that…
…there remains a fundamental idea that was partly a cause and partly a reflection of the defeat of the struggles of the 1970s and 1980s: “the struggle of the workers only has options when there are benefits for capital”; that is to say, “the struggle is not viable in the face of a concrete use of capital that is not profitable”. Under this formulation lies hidden the subordination of necessity to the results of accumulation, of Humanity and labor against capital. It is a deadly poison that is still active and that rides on an illusion promoted a thousand times by the state, the bourgeoisie and the left: to take the functional divisions of capital in companies and applications of capital, as if they were independent entities among themselves, as if capitalism were something that happened in the individual company and not in society, as if the system was not such but the mere sum, the aggregation of particular exploitations. Neither accumulation and exploitation nor human needs are determined on a business-to-business basis, but rather on the overall economic, social and political result of the exploitation of one class by another as a whole.
Where to go next?
GM workers’ own responses, when asked directly rather than asking their supposed “representatives,” foreshadow a way forward. When they fight against the division of workers by wage levels and tiers they are affirming the need for class unity in their struggle.
Union framing divides and subordinates the class in order to enslave it to the needs of a capital that is increasingly anxious to regain margins at our expense. Workers must come together in our own independent bodies within enterprises, across wage tiers, affiliation and border barriers. Sovereign assemblies and committees that can transcend the divisions that are imposed on us and coordinate across the divisions between companies. Only by organising ourselves and fighting under a leadership subordinate to the assembly of all – with no exceptions by category, type of contract or subcontractor – will we be able to establish the basic principle that allows us to move forward today: the general needs asserted by the workers are more important than the results of capital. It is their problem if they do not sell enough, it is not ours. What do we care if “the economy” treats better or worse their investments, we refuse to become the turkeys to be sacrificed in order to satisfy their dividends instead of responding to general human needs.