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GM Workers on Strike: History and Opportunity

September 23, 2019

In has been a week since 50,000 autoworkers decided to go on strike at numerous General Motors facilities across the county. This strike didn’t come out of nowhere, though, as many rank and file members of the UAW have been disgusted with company bosses and union leadership. 

On September 4, Labor Notes reported:

Routine strike votes were taken at the three companies in August. All passed with their usual votes in the high 90 percents. On September 3, the UAW announced that GM would be its first target—the union chooses one company at which to bargain the pattern, which the other two will follow. Contracts expire at midnight September 14.

Some members speculated that union leaders might call a brief strike as a demonstration to the feds that they were not bought off by corruption. Others hoped that deepened mistrust in leaders would encourage members to vote no on a bad tentative agreement, as Chrysler workers did on the last contract in 2015—winning gains for workers at all three companies.

This same Labor Notes article also talked about the level of corruption and collusion between Union leadership and GM bosses. 

For people who have been following big labor’s decline have been aware of how frustrated rank and file workers have become over the past several decades. This frustration grows out of the decision of big labor to embrace capitalism and cooperate with corporate America, for most of the 20th Century, as is well documented in Paul Buhle’s book, Taking Care of Business: Samuel Gompers, George Meany, Lane Kirkland, and the Tragedy of American Labor.

The frustration of UAW rank and file members is also well documented in the book Autoworkers Under the Gun: A Shop Floor View of the End of the American Dream, by Grand Rapids resident and now retired GM worker, Greg Shotwell. GRIID interviewed Shotwell in 2012, and his comments back then are just as relevant now. 

Just a few years before Shotwell wrote his book, the Obama administration had bailed out General Motors with $10 billion and yet the UAW leadership accepted major contract concessions. IN the ensuing years, the bailout led to record profits for GM, while workers were not getting the contracts they were fighting for. Now GM wants to cut off health care benefits for thousands of autoworkers.

Writing for the Nation Magazine, Jane McAlevey also talks about the corruption with UAW leadership, but she talks about why this current strike is so important for the workers to win. She writes: 

The official press releases from the UAW name other core issues in this strike: keeping US plants open, improving health care and wages. But to win something as huge as forcing GM to reopen plants and reinvest in American workers requires more than eliciting dubious company promises to create more jobs—it requires the kind of strike preparation and strategic thinking that has been absent at the highest levels of the union for far too long.

McAlevey also notes in her article that the UAW was at the forefront of radical labor organizing in the 1930s and 40s, with a nod to the wildcat strike in Flint. On December 30, 1936, workers began a wildcat strike in the Fischer Body plant in Flint. A wildcat strike is where workers occupy the factory, thus making it more difficult for management to bring in scab workers. GM attempted to use the courts and police violence to break up the wildcat strike, but workers, their families and their neighbors stepped up to support them and join the resistance. GM even lobbied Michigan’s Governor Frank Murphy to send in the National Guard. Murphy refused and on February 11 of 1937, GM finally conceded to the demands of the workers and recognized the UAW as the worker’s union.

Workers should look to this example of direct action from 1936-37 in Flint and considering escalating their tactic of picketing, to that of a full blow strike. If the UAW leadership does not support it, the public would, as there has already been significant public support for the striking autoworkers and escalating their action would only solidify public support. Either way, it is important that people support the strike in whatever way they can. Public solidarity is vital and it will not only send a strong message to the workers, but it will signal to the larger public that people care about working class struggles.

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