October 21, 2013

by Frank Hammer

October 23, 2013 Update:  Concerned that VW workers were reading this letter to the skilled trades workers, the pro-company so-called "team members" decided to pull their link to the Autoworker Caravan blog.  Maybe they'll follow that up with a change to the name of  their website: "No to INFORMED Auto Workers!"   FH  

Letter to Volkswagen Skilled Trades workers

If you were browsing on the website: NO TO UNINFORMED AUTO WORKERS and clicked a link that brought you to this page on the Autoworker Caravan blog, welcome!

The blog that the “Concerned VW Team Members” intended for you to see appears below.  Being a union member, I was just a wee bit surprised that folks opposing unions, and the UAW in particular would be so eager to urge skilled workers at Volkswagen to read my stuff.  You have to admit, it’s pretty unusual when folks with an anti-union agenda post an article by a writer who is firmly pro-union.   

32-year career in auto

I retired in 2007 after working for 32 years at GM as a member of the UAW.  I worked production for six years, mostly sweating on an assembly line.  I then entered a skilled trades apprenticeship, and became a Journeyman Pipefitter.  I was also active in my union, and was elected and re-elected by my co-workers to represent them as Bargaining Chair (and also President).  On behalf of 3,500 workers (including 800 master mechanics and maintenance employees) I led two successful contract negotiations with General Motors.  Believe me, I’ve seen the best and worst of General Motors, and of the UAW, and I have not been shy to express my views.

Autoworkers are under the gun - everywhere

We have more in common than you first might think.  We are faced with the same pressures and therefore the same problems.  The VW team members' site spells it out right on their website:  

If you do not like the conditions under which you were hired, and it wasn't a secret (remember that entire day you worked for free at the Park Palace?) how difficult it would be, then go somewhere else! This is America. Last time we looked, 50,000 other people have turned in applications to do YOUR job, to have YOUR healthy wages, YOUR 4-day work week and YOUR very, very good benefits. 

All autoworkers – whether union member or not – are hearing the same thing.  Everyday UAW members at the Detroit 3 plants are being told, “be glad you have your job.”  We all know that there’s so much unemployment out there, the companies can find someone who will be only too glad to take your job.   That’s something we all have in common.  And what we are discovering is that these companies have us playing musical chairs with our jobs- afraid that when the music stops, one of us is going to be SOL. 

When the UAW and the “Big 3” were still thriving back in the 60s and 70s, they set – through negotiation and confrontation - the standards that the non-union companies would have to follow as they came on the scene in the 80s.  And follow the lead of the unionized North they did, with one simple goal: to keep the workers in the non-union shops from having a reason to want to join a union.  The had to set the wages and benefits somewhere close to what our union had won, (sometimes as a result of a strike). 

Our gains = your gains = our gains

Back when I was in my factory, all the (non-union) supervisors cheered when GM and the UAW concluded their negotiations and got a new contract because the supervisors gained when we gained.  GM had to give them raises, too (and they got away without paying for the services rendered by the union).  That’s pretty much the way I see it when it comes to the non-union workers in the South and us up here in the North.  Our gains were also your gains.  We pay for them and, well, you haven’t.

Wall St banksters used the scandalous financial crisis of their own making in 2008 to take GM and Chrysler through a so-called “structured bankruptcy” in 2009.  They used it to take a lot of our hard fought gains away.  In fact, the government – at the prodding of Southern senators Corker and Shelby – forced the UAW-represented plants to copy the non-union plants in pay and benefits.  Or else.  The wages of senior workers were frozen, that of new hires cut 33 to 50%.  Autoworkers lost their protection against inflation (COLA), their time-and-a-half overtime pay after working a full shift, new hires won’t receive pensions, and much more. 

When we lose, you lose

So now the non-union auto companies don’t have to raise their standards; GM’s and Chrysler’s bankruptcy restructuring took care of that.  Just to prove my point, Honda – the non-union auto company in Ohio – announced one month ago that it is eliminating pensions for new hires and “reducing benefits for the people already with the company.”   The article goes on to say that Honda follows Chrysler, Ford, General Motors and Nissan in moving away from pensions for new employees.  Sure enough, the long term Honda blue collar employee who was interviewed by a reporter for the Columbus Dispatch spoke about management’s takeaways on condition of anonymity.  Otherwise you know what would happen.  http://bit.ly/16jv9EP 

When union members lose, non-union workers lose as well.  And when non-union workers get set back, so will those of us in the union.  The only winners are the CEOs who are enriching themselves and their companies’ wealthy investors.   Corporate-funded outfits like the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation don’t care about you or me.  They want to sow divisions among us all, while we are confronted by companies that are saying, “our way, or the highway.”  The “Concerned VW Team Members” gloat about this on their website and say “this is what America is all about.” I think these comments show their true colors as lapdogs for management.  I was amazed that they would be happy to remind VW “team” members about having had to work for free (!)  How many days do you think that CEOs work for free?

Yes to informed auto workers!

If the “No to Uninformed Auto Workers” was really about informing autoworkers, the site would feature a document called, “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”  You can access the document by clicking http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/index.shtml
The U.S. helped write, and then signed this document back in 1948, right after the defeat of fascism and the end of WW2.  Article 23 establishes several workers' rights, including the right of every worker to form a union: “Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of [their] interests.”  Protecting our interests requires workers banding together to have a voice; alone we work at the mercy of management.  The only way we can work together on behalf of our interests is by being organized in union locals at all the auto plants, and being part of a larger union, the UAW, so that we can have some collective clout.  

Otherwise, it’s “Our way, or the highway.” 

Democracy is a never-ending battle

If you read the 2012 blog below you will see that I am concerned about how that clout gets exercised   One of the best features of a good union is its practice of internal democracy.  The stronger it is, the more attractive the union is to workers.  Being able to vote to accept or reject a contract is part of that.  Being able to vote on who will represent you or, better yet, deciding you’ll run for election yourself, is part of that.  

That's why my article talks about voting practices regarding the acceptance or rejection of a contract. The article points out inconsistencies, where it's been done right, and where not.  Even as a retiree, I continue to strive to protect member democracy as do other UAW members who are part of the Autoworker Caravan.  If and when you become members of the UAW, you will need to form a tight core of worker organizers and insist on your democratic rights which are protected by Federal Law and the UAW Constitution.   Write to us at autoworkercaravan@gmail.com for assistance.  

 If you vote to join the union, UAW members and retirees will welcome you with open arms, as I am sure will all the unionized VW workers around the world. 

Thank you,
Frank Hammer

Disclaimer: The Autoworker Caravan blog and the Autoworker Caravan network have no affiliation with the “Concerned VW Team Members,” or their website, “No to Uninformed Auto Workers,” and do not endorse their anti-union agenda.   

Right to “Separate Ratification” not honored

In the March, 2012 ratification vote, skilled trades workers rejected a tentative local agreement between UAW Local 909 and the GM Powertrain division. Local 909 represents approximately 500 production, skilled trades and sanitation workers at the transaxle plant in Warren, MI. Within a few days of the vote, the local Shop chair held skilled trades shift meetings to determine the reasons. It turns out that the skilled trades “no” vote was mostly a protest vote over the army of outside contractors working in the plant — a national contract issue. However, there were a couple of complaints about items pertaining to skilled trades in the local agreement. At follow up meetings, the Chair explained that the Shop Committee made the request changes. Calling for another vote, he explained that the outside contractors had nothing to do with the local agreement and therefore should not be the basis for another “no” vote. The second balloting was held, with more “no” votes than the first round.

The Shop chair held a third set of meetings, this time bringing in a representative from the UAW’s GM Dept. As the national vs. Local issue was explained, a motion was made and passed to recommend that the agreement be considered ratified — saving the local from holding a third vote. As of this writing a decision by Solidarity House is pending. During this entire controversy, management has been refusing to honor clothing and shoe allowances negotiated in the local agreement for both production and skilled workers, on the grounds that the agreement hasn’t been ratified.

What about the Chrysler skilled trades “NO” vote?

All the above facts should be of great interest to skilled trades working for the Chrysler Corporation. Last fall, Chrysler skilled trades did the same thing on a national level that these Local 909 members did at the local level: They voted down the agreement (in both cases, the overall contract passed).

But the similarity ends there. Whereas the rights to separate ratification by the skilled trades at Local 909 were (mostly) honored, at Chrysler it was a different story. Unlike the GM local, no meetings were held at any of the Chrysler locals to determine why Chrysler skilled trades voted “no.” That part of the process was short-circuited. Instead, apparently under pressure from Chrysler CEO Marchionne, UAW President Bob King held a conference call with local union reps just 16 hours after the “no” vote was announced. At the conclusion of the conference call, which lasted less than an hour, the UAW International Executive Board huddled briefly and declared that the national agreement was “ratified” because “the reasons for the ’no’ vote among the skilled trades were predominately economic and not unique to skilled trades members.”

Note the word, “predominately.” The vote back at Local 909 could also be described as being “predominately” about matters not pertaining to the local agreement. Yet meetings were held, and the specifically skilled trades language was renegotiated.

Chrysler appeal has gone unanswered

Chrysler skilled workers, with the support of the Autoworker Caravan, filed an internal union appeal, challenging that decision shortly after the agreement was declared ratified. Six months have passed and the President’s office has refused to answer the appeal. Instead, the UAW Chrysler Department alone with Chrysler management are rushing ahead to jointly implement the terms of the skilled trades agreement that tradespeople voted to reject.

This is a blatant attack on union democracy and on the basic tenet that we, the union members, are the union. The ramrodding of the skilled trades agreement at Chrysler – and the refusal to answer the members’ legitimate appeal, is as much an attack on the union as we are witnessing at the hands of the Republican governors and state legislatures in Ohio, Wisconsin, Indiana, Pennsylvania and Michigan. Marchionne cannot be allowed to squelch union democracy! The UAW leadership must be held to account to stand up for the democratic rights of the membership and abide by their oath to defend the UAW Constitution.

Frank Hammer
Local 909 (Retired)

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