Autoworkers face one of their biggest challenges ever: how to fight in an era of globalization when companies threaten to move ever more production abroad to get the lowest wages and benefits possible.

With contracts for Daimler Chrysler, Ford and General Motors expiring this September, delegates at a United Auto Workers special convention in Detroit this week are working to develop a unified approach. A big concern is resisting the auto companies’ efforts to drive down wages and benefits. It is becoming increasingly evident that giving in offers no guarantee of keeping jobs but does guarantee that the race to the bottom gets faster and faster.

Yes, the Big Three are facing market challenges here in the U.S., but while closing plants at home, all three have embarked on a global splurge to build plants abroad. GM has manufacturing operations in 32 countries. GM and its main supplier Delphi have both opened major new facilities in recent years in Mexico, Eastern Europe, China and other Asian countries.

And while Ford, Daimler Chrysler and GM battle Toyota and others for market share here, the global trend is increasing interconnection and interdependence among auto companies.

GM and Toyota have a 23-year joint venture in Fremont, Calif. — New United Motor Manufacturing Inc. — building the Pontiac Vibe, Toyota Tacoma pickup and Toyota Corolla.

Ford and Mazda have a joint venture. GM Renault and Nissan jointly make commercial vans. Chrysler is slated to make minivans for Volkswagen. VW supplies diesel engines for Dodge. Ford is scheduled to make a minicar for Fiat in Europe. GM, Isuzu and Suzuki have a joint venture. And Daimler Chrysler, Mitsubishi and Hyundai developed a 4-cylinder engine to be made in Michigan.

These alliances, while making it possible to share production and downsize, also enable the companies to open more and more nonunion plants, while closing those that are unionized.

Free trade agreements have not brought economic security to workers of any country. Instead, the agreements promote competition among workers and weaken and cheapen labor worldwide. They do this in part by facilitating capital’s ability to move in and out of countries, and thus to whipsaw workers against each other in the infamous race to the bottom. In an era of globalization when operations can move from country to country, companies pit plants in the U.S. against plants in countries where wages and benefits are low. Auto companies are taking profits from one country, investing in another and claiming profit losses to gain more concessions.

GM claims it needs concessions from the union because “accounting gaffes” show profits less than expected — even as it reported a fourth-quarter profit of $950 million and anticipated “improved earnings” in 2007. Meanwhile it is opening billion-dollar plants around the world, including a big Opel plant in Slovakia and new facilities in China.

Daimler Chrysler too is saying that concessions are needed, but its net income in 2006 rose to $4.3 billion from $3.8 billion the previous year.

What can autoworkers do to fight back? The recent push by the UAW leadership to meet with autoworker unions of other countries is a positive development. The UAW recently hosted representatives of the Japanese autoworkers in Detroit and has meetings planned with autoworkers in Thailand, Mexico, South Africa, South Korea, Argentina and Brazil. It should also seek to meet with China’s autoworkers. As auto production has become global, so too must the union movement.

Autoworkers also have to demand action in Washington. The problems faced by autoworkers and their union require national government solutions. Health care cannot be bargained away without a national health plan in place guaranteeing universal affordable coverage. Corporations cannot be allowed to plead losses in the U.S. without looking at their worldwide profitability. Communities that are losing funds for schools and services need emergency funding. Money must be made available for health care, housing and job retraining among other things. All options including nationalization under public and union control must be considered to keep the plants open. When led by competent managers and run democratically, plants run for the public good can perform better than those managed privately.

While the industry is changing and becoming global, auto production is still a big factor in the U.S. However, it is becoming more nonunion. Organizing Toyota and others will not be easy, but passing the Employee Free Choice Act will be a big first step. Most important, the union will have to mobilize its membership and lead a fight against concessions. It may not be able win on everything but if it doesn’t fight, it will have a hard time winning the confidence of all autoworkers, union and nonunion.

John Rummel (jrummel@cpusa.org) is Michigan state organizer of the Communist Party USA.

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