Monday, September 24, 2007

UAW Launches Strike at GM 70 Years after Victory at Flint that Changed US Labor History

By Norman Markowitz

The United Automobile Workers Union has launched a national strike against General Motors, the first national UAW strike sense 1970, when the number of auto workers in the U.S. was much greater than it is today and before the destructive effects of cold war military spending and corporate arrogance and stupidity led the U.S. industry to lose the enormous lead that it had developed in automobile production and sales globally.

GM, which is still by far the leading automobile producer in the U.S. and the second leading automobile producer in the world after Toyota (although today much of its productive capacity is outside the U.S) has referred to the strike as the most important in a generation. The UAW leadership has responded by condemning GM's continued demands for worker "givebacks" while it finds ways to provide its executives with bonuses, "stock options." and various other payouts and payoffs that greatly inflate their income.

In early 1937, UAW organizers led primarily by CPUSA activists launched the sitdown strike against GM's Flint factory complex which changed U.S. labor history. The strike resulted in a far-reaching victory by the UAW which led to union recognition and inspired victories and settlements at U.S. Steel and in many basic industries through the country. The strike was won and it remains the greatest victory won by the U.S. labor movement in its history. Immediately after WWII, the number of workers in trade unions had grown from less than 10% of the work force in 1933 to around 33% by 1947, the year the cold war inspired anti-Communist and anti-labor Taft-Hartley Act both blocked further labor gains and set the stage for later losses, especially in the Reagan-Bush era of extensive export of capital abroad by firms like GM, forced "givebacks," union busting with the assistance of open anti-labor governments.

UAW president Ron Gettelfinger started the strike, in my opinion, on a wrong foot when he said "This is not what we wanted. Nobody wins a strike." Besides being a dubious way to rally workers and pro labor citizens to support the union, the statement really isn't true. While strikes hurt both workers and employers economically and the monetary losses are not often made up quickly, (and sometimes not made up at all) they are either won, as was true of the Flint Strike of 1937 and the Ford Motor Company Strike of 1941 or lost, as was true of the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, the Pullman Strike of 1894, the Great Strike of 1919. Some strikes, like Flint in 1937 are of particular strategic importance.

This national strike can result in a victory that will show the viability of a national union to defend its workers today from a U.S. based global corporation that, when the Flint Strike was won in 1937, was the largest private corporation on earth. The UAW and other U.S. corporations have in recent years taken steps to develop international industry labor solidarity, which is central to any longterm victory over General Motors, Toyota, Ford, Nissan, and similar firms in many industries. But strikes are fought nationally and must be won nationally.

The press notes that the UAW has an extensive strike fund and other resources which put it in a good position materially to carry out a national strike That is all to the good and the UAW will need both support and solidarity from U.S. and non-U.S. workers if it is to win this strike and make that victory an important one in the revival of American labor. To do that it will need militant leadership in directing the strike and also in educating both American workers and workers abroad to the importance of a labor victory for them.

When the UAW won the Flint strike in 1937 it was both an industrial union as against a craft union and an example of "social unionism" in that it involved itself in larger political, social, and community struggles (supporting progressive legislation, opposing racism at home and fascism abroad) as against the prevailing AFL "business unionism" which stayed clear of any political question not directly related to immediate collective bargaining issues and supported any politician who would give it what it wanted on those issues, however reactionary he might be on anything and everything else.

That industrial unionism and social unionism was, with these leadership of Communist and other left activists and the help of a sympathetic New Deal government, what enable the U.S. labor movement to increase its its membership by nearly five times between 1933 and 1947. A UAW victory today would help energize the labor movement to move forward, elect a progressive pro labor government in 2008 that would offer it assistance in its organizing drives and other struggles, and begin to unionize millions of non-union workers in the contemporary work force. That is the challenge labor faces today and the UAW Strike can and hopefully will be a successful step in labor's meeting that challenge.

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