ABOUT 73,000 carworkers, members of the 600,000-strong United Automobile Workers (UAW) trade union, went on indefinite strike at 11am on Monday at General Motors’ (GM) 70 plants in the United States. There has not been a national strike at GM in the US since 1970.
The strike is ostensibly over jobs, job security, pay and benefits for UAW members working for GM. However, in the background are concerns over the car giant’s moves to dump its commitments to fund healthcare insurance and pensions, for past and present employees.
More than 460,000 retired GM workers rely on the corporation for their healthcare cover and pensions. It is estimated that the corporation has $55bn of healthcare liabilities and $60bn for pensions.
The car giant has made clear that it is determined to dump its healthcare liabilities through the creation of a Voluntary Employee Benefit Association (VEBA) to take over this responsibility.
The company wants the UAW to run the VEBA and is proposing that it be funded by the ownership of a block of shares in the company, which would make healthcare entitlements dependent on GM share prices.
GM spokesman Tom Wickham said the corporation was ‘disappointed’ that the UAW had decided to strike. He made clear the negotiations were not merely about thrashing out another four-year contract, but were the most decisive for the company in a generation.
Referring to the car giant’s plans to get rid of its healthcare liabilities, he said: ‘The bargaining involves complex, difficult issues that affect the job security of our US workforce and the long-term viability of the company.’
Explaining why a strike had been called, UAW President Ron Gettelfinger made clear that the union leaders had made concession after concession to GM since 2003. He said: ‘We’ve done a lot of things to help that company. But look, there comes a point in time where you have to draw a line in the sand.’
Concerning the negotiations, Gettelfinger added: ‘It was going to be General Motors’ way at the expense of the workers. The company walked right up to the deadline like they really didn’t care. And as a result we called a strike.’
It is clear that the UAW leadership has been forced into a strike because union members will not accept any more concessions to GM and the loss of their existing healthcare and pensions entitlement.
As a picket at a GM plant in Michigan said: ‘It’s about time the union stood up against the company and stood for the people.’ She made clear that healthcare and pensions were the crucial issues.
The battle between GM and UAW members is ‘high noon’ for both sides.
GM bosses know they have to impose their demands if the company is to survive and stand a chance of returning to profitability.
This is the case throughout the US car industry. So while GM and UAW negotiators were talking in Detroit, GM Chief Executive Rick Wagoner held a conference call, over last weekend with his counterparts at Ford and Chrysler.
The Teamsters union immediately declared that its members would not deliver GM cars and their members would respect UAW picket lines, because it knows its members face major struggles too.
From the standpoint of all UAW members working for the ‘Big Three’ car giants, the outcome of the GM struggle is decisive for their fight to defend jobs, pay, working conditions, and above all healthcare cover and pensions.
In order to ensure the victory of the GM strike and defend themselves, UAW members at Ford and Chrysler must take solidarity strike action immediately and halt all vehicle production in the US.
The GM strikers are fighting for the whole American working class.
Their struggle is, in essence, a political one that raises issues that cannot be resolved within the limits of US capitalism, hit by the recent world financial crisis and in the grip of a growing recession.
This struggle demands the building of a new revolutionary leadership in the unions and throughout the working class, a US section of the International Committee of the Fourth International, that will organise workers to carry out the American Socialist Revolution.