by Wendy Thompson, Detroit Green Party, UAW convention delegate and former president
In December, an auto caravan traveled from Detroit to the White House to speak out for declining conditions for union autoworkers. Then in January, more than 150 autoworkers and community supporters, including Green Party members, held a rally in front of the Detroit Auto Show. They voiced anger about the anti-union conditions that outgoing President Bush has placed on federal loans to the auto industry. Wages, benefits and working conditions are to be forced down to non-union levels. At least half of the money the company transfers to the union for health care is to be in company stock. Protesters are circulating a petition requesting that President Obama rescind the Bush restrictions.
After Election Day, union autoworkers were portrayed by legislators and the media as “lazy and overpaid” with a wage of $70 an hour. Actual union wages are $28, not including benefits. To protest these lies by members of Congress, in early December autoworkers organized a caravan to Washington. D.C. with participants coming from Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, New York, and Delaware.
At a press conference in Washington members of the auto caravan called for health care and pensions for all, and for shuttered auto plants to be converted to making much-needed mass transit and light rail vehicles, or alternative energy equipment such as wind turbines. Later the auto caravan protesters gave an earful to Alabama Senator Richard Shelby and met with Michigan Representative John Conyers, who has introduced a single-payer health care bill, HR676.
After World War II, the United Auto Workers (UAW) promoted small cars and single payer health care, but management preferred a health care system that was not government based. They liked the control it gave them over their workforce. For the union, company-paid health care was just a fallback position. Now, because bad management decisions have led to a loss of market share, we face a crisis.
I retired three years ago at the age of 57, opening up a decent job for a young person. Since then, management has been trying to get out of its commitment to provide retirement benefits for me and many others. This is a serious concern, as the majority of my Detroit working-class neighbors rely on UAW pensions or survivors benefits.
Everything changed for autoworkers when the Delphi Corporation, one of the largest auto parts manufacturers, declared bankruptcy. It became clear that the company was trying to get out from under its contractual obligations. Pension and health care benefits were reduced. The union agreed to concessions, and broke with the principle of solidarity by negotiating two-tier wages and benefits for new hires. But these concessions only encouraged the corporations to further attack workers.
Now Bush’s anti-union actions may cause unions to cease to exist as a viable social force. That would make a whole lot of corporate heads happy, but it would end up depressing the wages of all workers. Union workers make 25 percent more than non-union workers but without that standard, non-union wages would also plummet.
The autoworker caravan has continued its organizing with a website, and will be sending out the first batch of petition signatures to President Obama. We are also gathering names for an open letter to Southern transplant autoworkers (non-union workers). People can go to the website and add their names to the letter. In the early spring, we plan to visit various plants and talk with workers.
Additional information can be found at www.autoworkercaravan.org.