ALL-OUT STRIKE AT GENERAL MOTORS
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USA: All-out strike at General Motors
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General Motors, the car industry juggernaut, has recently been brought to its knees by an all-out strike which lasted 35 days and closed down 26 of the 29 car plants in the USA.
The Italian daily, «La republica», in its 8/7/98 edition, characterised the dispute as follows:
«The figure of 50,000 posts being cut is in fact, mainly a bargaining point. GM proposes to arrive at this figure gradually (we are reminded of FIAT in the 80s, and FORD in America) without resorting to sackings by simply freezing new recruitment, and not replacing workers who have retired. And the union isn't opposed, in principle, to a policy which has been pursued for many years. But this trial of strength around the cuts has served to highlight the real point, which is productivity the union has called for a series of investments to be made at the Flint plant (Michigan) in order to improve working conditions; at present, many workers are forced to work, wearing heavy protection clothing, in departments with temperatures over 30 degrees centigrade, without air conditioning. But GM has made these investments (of around $300 million dollars) conditional on the abolition of a clause which allows workers to operate within a kind of 'back-to-front' piecework system. At present, the workers are under contract to produce a certain quota of work: anyone who reaches it in, say, 7 hours, can go home and receive a normal eight hours pay or start on overtime».
The strike continued even after the 15 days holiday shut-down. Everyone was led to believe that an agreement would be reached when work resumed, considering that GM had lost $4.5 billion through loss of sales and risked huge losses on the stock exchange. What was at stake though was considerably more than just a union meeting or a few million dollars. In fact, in the context of a significant slowing up of the American economy, what is at stake is the company's long-term competivity, which is threatened by the Asian-based car manufacturers (Nissan, Toyota, etc), who are becoming ever more predatory as the economic crisis deepens. And as well as GM, it is the destinies of the other big car firms, Ford and Chrysler, which is at stake, for they would be forced to adapt to the competition, and indeed are already talking of closing down some lines of production, whether models of cars or units of production.
The leaders of the Union of Automobile Workers (UAN), just like all bourgeois democrats, says the form of struggle it has adopted is long-term, like the objectives it hopes to achieve; technical innovation, laying off of surplus man-power by utilising the latest economic guarantees in the US like unemployment benefit, speeding up production lines, appreciable reduction in salary by getting rid of, even if only partially, of the clause on piece-work. In fact, having gone this far, they may as well chuck out the demand for a bit of air-conditioning as well!
The strike in the main factories has held up production for thousands of workers who work on the assembly lines, and who process spare parts throughout the United States; at the moment they are receiving a subsidy, but for how much longer?
The various union bosses at GM, Ford and Chrysler are saying that industrial relations with 'The Big Three' must be revised because of the imminent pay rounds in the car sector next year.
But the reality for the GM workers is even more complex: in fact, as part of a process initiated in the thirties, part of the GM business has been subcontracted to plants in Mexico. Delphi Automotive Services, with 72,000 workers, is the biggest private business in Mexico. We draw attention to some other facts referred to in the Italian newspaper «Manifesto»:
«In Mexico, the minimum guaranteed daily wage is $3.40. Therefore, when GM comes along and pays $1.36 an hour (the usual rate at Delphi) it appears as a benevolent employer. At the Flint plant, for the same duties, a unionised worker is paid $22 per hour, that is, an average of $984 per week plus overtime, a figure which for us is astronomical».
It is in the context of this contradictory situation that GM and the union are working towards lowering the cost of labour in the USA to Mexican and Asian levels. This confirms that the imperative of American capital, just like all capital, is to reduce salaries and increase productivity, i.e. exploitation. The goal of communists and all workers who have the interests of workers at heart is exactly the opposite: to defend living standards and working conditions, and to fight for wage increases - above all for the lowest paid -and proletarian internationalism.
Source: «Communist Left», No. 12/13, Summer 1999 (translated from «Il Partito Comunista», No. 259)
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