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The diary of a U.A.W. dissident.

Tuesday, August 28: As the contract deadline approached, 4,400 of us at the G.M. plant in Van Nuys received a leaflet from our shop committee asking for a strike vote to strengthen the union's heand in negotiations with the company.

Wednesday, August 29: More than 96 percent voted in favor of a walkout. Although U.A.W. president Owen Bieber makes general statements about job security, only a few of the more than one hundred workers I've talked to can name one concrete demand that would make our jobs secure. By keeping the membership in the dark, Bieber has much greater flexibility. It's hard to be accused of selling out if you never explain what you're tryiong to win.

Friday, September 14: Twenty-two hundred of us work the night shift. If there is no settlement tonight, we walk. Everyone is apprehensive but also a little excited. As the beautiful $14,000 Camaros and Firebirds that we assemble move along the line, the foremen tell us: "You watch, there won't be a strike. They'll work it out at the last minute, so pay attention to your work." At 8:40 our elected union committeeman walks down the line with a big sign: "UAW ON STRIKE FOR JOB SECURITY." A roar goes up from the workers which drowns out the machinery. At 8:59 we walk--past the foremen, past the Camaros with no bumpers and no transmissions.

For a brief moment as we march out of that cavernous factory, the power of the working class becomes clear to me, and it becomes clear why society hides it, especially from the workers themselves. A strike is not always the best tactic, but now G.M.'s profits are astronomical and production can barely keep up with sales. The company needs those cars, and it needs us to produce them.

As we walk into the glare of television lights on Van Nuys Boulevard, thousands of workers waiting outside scream, cheer, honk the horns of their cars. We all tell the TV reporters the same thing: "G.M. has made plenty of profits. It's time they stopped threatening to lay us off and close our plant; it's time we got a substantial raise and a pledge of job security."

Monday, September 17: The next morning we awoke to find ourselves alone. To our surprise, we heard on TV that we were not part of a national strike for job security but that our local was one of thirteen striking over local demands. Why weren't all the G.M. locals pulled out? The International office explained it didn't want to cripple G.M. Great! G.M. is threatening to eliminate 80,000 jobs permanently, but we don't want to cripple it.

Sunday night, taking the International's story at face value, some of the more conciliatory members of our bargaining committee reached an agreement with the Van Nuys management and declared that the strike was over. Since it was a local strike, why stay out? So while twelve other U.A.W. locals remained on strike, the Van Nuys workers returned to work this morning. "Four hours on strike--we sure forced G.M. to its knees," the more militant workers joked. Some of them did more than joke. At lunchtime hundreds stormed across the street to the union hall, demanding to know why they had been ordered back to work before the local contract was ratified. They were supported by local president Pete Beltran, who pointed out that the U.A.W. constitution gives us the right to stay out until the agreement is signed. Led by Beltran, other officers issued a new strike order, and the workers marched out of the factory again. Those of us on the second shift showed up amid great confusions, and more than 90 percent agreed to cintinue the strike.

Tuesday, September 18: More than 2,300 angry workers showed up for a ratification meeting. The shop committee's report on the local contract was interrupted by frequent booing. Many people were critical of the pact, but the main thing bothering the members was the lack of democracy. "Here they ask for a strike vote and I can hardly explain what we're striking for," one man said. "And then they send me back to work and I can't explain to my wife what the hell we got. It makes lose confidence in the leadership."

Beltran tried to focus the members' anger. If we went back to work we would have no leverage with G.M. or the International on issues of job security, he said. Besides, our local is conducting the Campaign to Keep G.M. Van Nuys Open calling for a California boycott of G.M. products if the company ever closes our plant, which it is threatening to do [see Mann, "Workers and Community Take On G.M.," The Nation, February 11]. Since a boycott would affect other U.A.W. locals at G.M. plants, we have been asking them to support our campaign as a show of solidarity. If Van Nuys went back to work while twelve other locals were still on strike, our credibility would be lost. Militancy and strategy coincided as a better-informed membership voted 1,756 to 565 to stay out.

Wednesday and Thursday, September 19 and 20: What do you do when you're on strike? In too many unions, being on strike simply means pulling picket duty and waiting it out; we attend classes in labor history. Kelley Gemco, the education chair, shows videotapes of the Van Nuys campaign and films like With Babies and Banners, depicting the role of women in the historic Flint sit-down strike of 1937, which forced G.M. to recognize the U.A.W. We also have long discussions of the issues in the current negotiations.

Friday and Saturday, 21 and 22: At midnight on Thursday a TV news bulletin showed G.M.'s top negotiator, Al Warren, gushing about "Owen" and the "statesmanlike attitude of the U.A.W. negotiators."

"As soon as I saw G.M. heaping all that praise on the International, I knew the fix was in," one worker grumbled. Warren said that a tentative settlement had been reached.

While we were planning our response to the settlement, an order came down from the International that we go back to work. If we didn't, we would lose all strike benefits, and our local would be put in trusteeship (by which the local is denied self-governance and all its political and financial affairs are placed in the hands of a "trustee," handpicked by the International). Just a week before, the International told us that it wasn't a national strike and that we had the right to stay out over local issues; now the leaders had to show the company they could enforce discipline. We decided that since all the other locals were going back, we would concentrate on defeating the contract and not risk the loss of our local charter by fighting the Interantional alone.

Monday, September 24: We go back to work, before ratifying our local or national contract. The Los Angeles Times gloats, "Rebellious Local Returns to Work, Bows to National Chief's Stern Order." As we return to the line, all the militancy and pride we had felt when we walked out is replaced by dejection and confusion. The foremen rub it in: "So here you are again. Now what the hell did that strike get you, anyway?" That is a question we can't answer. At this moment, the power of the company has never seemed stronger.

Sunday, September 30: More than 1,200 workers listened to a report on the contract. The representatives of the International gave a long, boring presentation in which they admitted that the "job bank" provision of the contract (which establishes a fund for retraining workers who are laid off because of new technology or subcontracting) would not apply to Van Nuys if G.M. carried out its plans to close the plant.

Beltran presented a minority report, urging us to vote No. More than twenty-five workers got up to denounce the contract and the leadership. Some used such strong language that the International representatives had to remind them that children were present. Then the contract was put to a vote. To the amazement of many, it was ratified by a 2-to-1 margin.

After talking with many workers, I learned why. A lot of the more conservative ones just wanted to sign the contract and go back to work. They feel that they are well paid and that we can't stop G.M. from closing the plant. Their attitude is, Let's just collect our paychecks while we can. The vast majority of workers believe we were sold out, but they didn't want to strike, figuring that even if we forced the union back to the bargaining table, it would just keep us out a few months to break our spirit, then push us back to work with the same package. Ironically, the deep-seated cynicism about the International served the leadership's interests. The Yes vote on the contract was, in effect, a vote of no confidence.

Finally, many workers were misled by media reports that announced the contract had been endorsed almost unanimously by U.A.W. local presidents. We were one of the first locals to vote, and we were shocked to discover later that workers in Lordstown, Ohio, voted it down 3 to 1. Locals at Lakewood (Georgia), Oldsmobile Lansing and Saginaw Steer and Gear (Michigan), Linden (New Jersey) and many other plants rejected the contract. Many workers had felt that isolated resistance was futile in view of the International's threats of trusteeship. Had they known there was strong opposition in the Midwest locals, the vote would have been different.

The G.M. contract was ratified by a 58 percent to 42 percent vote. Its impact--dramatic and permanent job elimination with the International union's complicity--will be felt for years to come. Yet because the International is ideologically and politically tied to the coatails of the Big Three, it sees its role as providing benefits to those eliminated and representing the survivors, rather than challenging the company's prerogatives to invest and disinvest capital and to hire and fire workers.

Apparently, the International is willing to rule rather than govern, overriding the wishes of 40 percent of the membership who voted No on the contract. But the opposition needs to solve certain political problems before it can become more effective. Many black workers feel that their legitimate grievances about discrimination, on the shop floor and within the U.A.W. itself, have been dismissed by the white reform leadership. Several of the most military local presidents reject the idea of a national opposition caucus or network because they fear they will be branded "leftists" and subjected to Red-baiting by the International.

In the coming years U.A.W. reformers must solve those problems and work toward organizing a showdown in the 1987 contract negotiations. As the clock ticks away, there will be fewer and fewer auto workers left to turn the union around. As Pete Kelly, lone dissenting member of the national bargaining committee, said, "The greatest tragedy of the 1984 contract is that many of those who voted for it will not be around to say they are sorry."
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Author:Mann, Eric
Publication:The Nation
Date:Nov 10, 1984
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