UAW Convention/Activists open fight against corporate unionism – Workers World

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Detroit

February 11, 1937 marks the victory of the 44-day Flint sit-down strike that forced General Motors to recognize the United Auto Workers.

After the victory, however, a factional fight split the fledgling union. Within a few years, the UAW-CIO—activists affiliated with the Congress of Industrial Organizations—defeated the UAW-AFL, class collaborationists who wanted the union to be part of the conservative, artisanal American Federation of Labor. (The two then separate federations did not merge until 1955.)

The recent 38th UAW Constitutional Convention demonstrated that the struggle for union direction is still alive and well. As has been the case for decades, grassroots activists have become the opposition to corporate unionism descended from the controlling Administration Caucus (AC), which has more in common with the former UAW-AFL than with the radical UAW-CIO party of the past. The current International Executive Board (IEB) prefers union-management cooperation to class-struggle unionism, stifling union democracy to stifle any challenge to the CA.

But this Convention, held from July 25 to 28, marks a qualitative change in the balance of power. Among the 900 delegates – representing more than 300 local unions in a range of sectors from manufacturing to higher education to public employees – there was enough organized opposition to force resolutions submitted by locals to discuss. This achievement is largely due to the efforts of Unite All Workers for Democracy (UAWD), a grassroots-led caucus formed in 2020.

Typically, the CA holds a convention organized around its own omnibus resolution, which is weakly progressive on a variety of issues, interspersed with speeches from Democratic Party politicians. Candidates for the IEB are named towards the end of the convention; for the most part they ran unopposed or with marginal opposition. The Board exerts enough pressure on the delegates to prevent them from reaching the threshold necessary to present further amendments and resolutions – this threshold being around 15% of the delegates according to the rules of the convention.

A critical change from previous conventions is that now the IEB must be elected directly by UAW rank-and-file members. Members defeated the old system of election by convention delegates by a 2-1 vote last year. The referendum was ordered under the decree of consent between the UAW and the federal government, after a federal investigation uncovered massive corruption, including theft of union funds, kickbacks from vendors and bribes from Fiat Chrysler Automobiles in exchange for contractual concessions.

Delegates discuss levels

Several amendments, which were drafted by UAWD and adopted by a number of locals, were the subject of lively discussion. The UAW Constitution would have been amended to commit the union to opposing unequal and divisive scaled compensation and benefits. Allowing two tiers in the 2007 contracts with Ford, General Motors and Chrysler (now part of Stellantis) meant big savings for the companies, i.e. bigger profits, by paying new workers lower wages, offering fewer benefits and denying them a traditional pension.

This betrayal of the next generation of autoworkers has become widely unpopular. The way the Board defeated the Progressive Amendment was to argue that the subject “has no place in the Constitution” and should be raised at the Special Bargaining Convention in 2023. But there is no question avoidance; that nearly 300 delegates voted to pass the amendment to the floor and succeeded in forcing a floor debate on the bleachers was unprecedented.

More than two dozen locals have passed a UAWD resolution to increase weekly strike pay to $400 per week, starting on the first day instead of after the first week. Prior to the convention, the IEB voted to increase weekly strike pay by $400. Convention delegates enshrined this in the Constitution and instituted the first day of departure – then changed that wording to further increase weekly strike pay to $500! A member who has been on strike since May at Case New Holland said it would really discourage anyone considering crossing the picket line.

With contracts from the Big Three automakers expiring in 2023, putting more money in the pockets of strikers to help them out would ensure greater leverage at the bargaining table. Retaining labor at the point of production is the only real weapon available to unions against powerful corporations, which have the backing of the capitalist state.

Fourth day: corporate unionism as usual

The CA had lost control; the convention did not follow the script. The maneuvers on the last day of the convention aimed to put the genius of independent and militant grassroots activism back into the bottle. The delegates received their marching orders (back) before the gavel struck.

The charade began with nominations for an international trustee, always chosen by convention delegates. The rules approved by the delegates allowed only two nomination speeches per candidate. Yet more than 60 delegates took to the microphone to nominate the Board’s hand-picked candidate, a process that took hours of discussion time. UAWD Steering Committee Chairman Scott Houldieson was able to garner a significant number of votes, however.

The worst example of AC manipulation, after many delegates left to catch flights home, followed. A delegate moved a motion to reduce strike pay to $400, saying $500 would bankrupt the strike fund. The reduction went through a wide margin.

What message does this retirement send to the bosses? That “we’re ready to fight” – but not too much, so don’t worry?

A text thread for pro-UAWD delegates was burning with angry comments. It was noted the irony that a pay rise for IEB members was not reconsidered.

The fight at the UAW convention is part of a larger debate: Should unions pursue a politics of class peace, content with whatever crumbs the capitalists are willing to offer? Or is it time to revive the class struggle and take it beyond the confines of the traditional union structure and build a global class movement?

For workers, to ask the question is to answer it.

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