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A missed opportunity with the GM layoffs: What US Labor Unions could learn from Unions around the world

December 4, 2018

In the fall of 2003, I was interviewing a labor leader with the UAW about the closing of the Electrolux plant in Greenville. When I asked the woman with the UAW, why the union did not fight harder to keep the plant open, even if it meant for workers to occupy the plant. The UAW representative responded by saying that those kind of tactics have been outlawed ever since the Labor Management Relations Act, also known as the Taft-Hartley Act, was signed into law in 1947

I share this story, because it reflects the general attitude by the large, mainstream unions in the US that have failed working people for a long time on numerous fronts. So what if US law prohibits using those kinds of tactics. The Taft-Hartley Act was designed to break unions and to limit their ability to engage in sit-down or wildcat strikes, like the UAW use to do in the early days of that union.

GM Layoffs and Missed Opportunities

The mass layoffs recently announced by General Motors was a cruel, callous action that once again demonstrated how businesses view workers…….as disposable.

What made these layoffs so insidious was the fact that GM had received huge tax benefits, totally $514 million, plus the company has been given a total of $50 billion in taxpayer funded subsidies over the last decade, according to a recent article posted on Common Dreams.

A total of 14,700 jobs have been cut with this latest GM announcement and what did the UAW do? So far, the only thing they have done is to write statements objecting to the massive worker layoffs. Here is what UAW President Gary Jones said:

We have been clear that the UAW will leave no stone unturned and use any and all resources available to us regarding the future of these plants. Today, we wrote to GM formally objecting to its unilateral decision regarding four U.S. manufacturing facilities. There are issues related to this and to collective bargaining that we cannot discuss in detail at this point. But UAW members across this country are committed to using every means available to us on behalf of our brothers and sisters at Lordstown, Hamtramck, Baltimore and Warren, MI. UAW members and U.S. taxpayers invested in GM during their darkest days. Now it is time for them to invest in us!

My question is, what does it mean when he says that they are committed to using every means available to us on behalf of our brothers and sisters?”

Here is a thought. How about if workers occupied the factories and ran it as if they owned the factories. This is exactly what factory workers did in Argentina after the economic crash in 2001. Workers occupied the factories and began to run them as worker collectives. This amazing story is captured in a documentary film by Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein, entitled, The Take, which you can watch here.

Since the documentary came out in 2004, there is a book that has also been written about how the decision by the workers at this one factory has led to a movement of worker-owned and worker-run cooperatives. These cooperatives include all kinds of business and the majority of them are run by women. The worker-run factories of Argentina offer an inspirational example of a struggle for social change that has achieved a real victory for working people confronting corporate globalization. Sin Patrón gives an insider’s account of this important movement.

This is exactly the tactic and the kind of strategy that organized labor needs to use here in the US, if they plan on staying relevant. Don’t you think that of the 14,700 GM workers who just lost their jobs would have nothing to lose by taking such an action? Unfortunately, we may never know, since the UAW is not likely to use every means available to defend their union members.

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