THERE is widespread opposition amongst members of the United Auto Workers (UAW) trade union in America to the deal its leaders agreed to call off strike action at General Motors.
At stake is the future of jobs, healthcare cover and pensions at the car giant.
The ‘Future of the Union website is featuring a wideranging discussion on these issues.
Warning that the UAW leadership was taking the union down a ‘new road’, Al Benchich, from UAW Local 909 in Michigan, stated in a recent article that, ‘although the press reported that the presidents and chairmen at the UAW-GM Council meeting accepted the tentative agreement unanimously, the fact is, I did not vote either way.’
He added, about the deal: ‘It wasn’t that I was afraid to voice my opinion because I did get up and ask numerous questions and said that I had problems with the Voluntary Employee Beneficiary Association (VEBA) portion of the agreement.
‘It was because as I said at that meeting, that my union was embarking down a new road that we had not discussed prior to negotiations.
‘Several hours was not enough time for me to get my arms around the changes that were being made and the impact it will have on all our futures.
‘But after studying the actual language, reading what others have to say and talking to people I respect and a lot of soul searching, I have come to some conclusions.
‘But first,’ writes Benchich, ‘I’d like to talk about the two most prominent changes that were made in the agreement – VEBA and the two tier.
‘You’re probably sick of hearing about VEBA.
‘All it is, is a mechanism to pay for retiree health care.
‘A VEBA takes the responsibility and obligations off of GM’s shoulders and allows GM to never pay for retiree health care again once they have met all the financial obligations contained in this contract.
‘GM will kick in a whole lot of money, active members will contribute through COLA (Cost Of Living Allowance) diversions and money will come out of the pension fund through the retirees to the VEBA fund. (The last item is the “pension pass through” arrangement found on page 9 of the “Highlights”).
‘Retirees will still be getting good health care insurance compared to most other Americans and we will all be paying for it.
‘Is it the answer? NO! Because as Brother Gettelfinger says, the solution to the health care crisis cannot be bargained at the bargaining table.
‘The solution is a single-payer National Health Care program, pure and simple.
‘In the end it doesn’t matter whose paying the tab, GM or a VEBA, because the problem is systemic. We will continue to be behind the 8 ball unless the system is changed.’
Benchich added: ‘That is why the UAW should have held GM’s feet to the fire and forced GM to officially endorse a single payer system like they endorse in Canada and work with us to educate the country.
‘That is what the National Institute for Health Care Reform (pg. 4 of the Highlights) should be working towards.
‘But GM has not committed to single payer, even though it would save them billions a year and not cost them one extra penny.’
Benchich said that: ‘The most chilling part of the tentative agreement is the two-tier wage and benefit provisions for new hires.
‘It is such a tremendous step backwards for our union that I find it impossible to endorse the contract on this issue alone.
‘The two-tier provisions will have the most profound affect on our current members of all the changes in the agreement.
‘It is not just that new hires will be starting at the wages that GM workers made in the mid 1980s, it is the fact that these lower paying jobs are the easier jobs that high seniority workers were able to earn with their seniority, after sacrificing their bodies for 20, 25 to 30 years on the lines.
‘The contract speaks of hilo drivers and crib attendants and material handlers as being part of the lower tier.
‘We are told that it will be up to the local parties to figure it out, but the guidelines have been set.
‘New hires will start at $14-$14.61 and work their way up to the top wage in 2 years.
‘Right now the top rates are $14.50 to $16.23.
‘New hire wages will go up every year and who knows, in 10 or fifteen years they may be making what GM workers are making today.
‘But they will never see a GM pension.
‘They’ll have a portable pension, because they probably won’t want to stay here at the wages they’ll be paid.
‘And when they retire, they’ll get all the health care they can buy with whatever their 401(k) is worth.
‘SO, WHAT TO DO?’ asks Benchich.
He says: ‘I believe that this contract will probably pass.
‘Could we get a better contact if we turned it down?
‘I believe we could, but it would probably mean that more jobs would leave this country even quicker.
‘The problem isn’t a “sell-out” union leadership – they’re not. I think they have our best interests in mind.
‘The problem is that the cards are stacked against us.
‘As long as we are trying to operate in a global economic system, we will be part of the “race to the bottom’’.
‘We got a taste of the power of working people when we shut down GM coast to coast in a matter of minutes.
‘Working people across the country need to use that power to fight to change a system we didn’t vote for and that is bent on driving down the standard of living of this country.
‘When people are ready to do that, I’ll be there!
‘Until then, I can’t vote because I’m retired, but if I could vote, I’d have to vote NO on principle.’
The change that UAW members are demanding can only come about through fighting to put an end to the rule of the US capitalist class and its system. This requires a new union and political leadership and a struggle for a socialist system of society.
There has to be determined strike action and occupations of plants to reject mass sackings and schemes like VEBA that will force workers’ unions to gamble on the stock market to raise the funds for healthcare cover, and are bound to end in massive disaster.
The only way to defeat the US corporations’ drive for cuts in living standards in order to maintain their own profits is to bring all the car workers together in united action.
Workers must occupy factories threatened with closure and fight for the the nationalisation of bankrupt industries to stop American capitalism closing down more industries in search of cheaper labour abroad.
This will require a new leadership in the unions, and breaking with the Democrats and Republicans and taking up the struggle for a Labour party based on the trade unions and a socialist America, where healthcare is free for all.
The reformist UAW leaders may not want to sell out their members but that is what their politics inescapably leads them to do. US socialists need to rapidly build a section of the Trotskyist International Committee of the Fourth International to lead this revolutionary struggle forward to victory.