Autoworkers not ready to make nice

DETROIT — As the United Auto Workers’ two-day special convention on bargaining came to a close, music filled the hall. It seemed to send a message to GM, Ford and Chrysler that that the union isn’t ready to roll over. The song was the Dixie Chicks’ hit “Not Ready to Make Nice.”

Far from being demoralized, autoworkers and other UAW members here voiced anger at the Bush administration and corporations who attack labor while watching their own pockets get fat. Detroit auto companies keep repeating that autoworkers must “sacrifice” more, but the sacrifices have been completely one-sided, union members say. Grants and stock options GM gave its top six executives alone are worth more than $10 million.

A GM worker from Texas told the World the rich just keep getting richer and voiced anger over the “horrific” war in Iraq, saying the young men and women who have died and those coming back with missing arms and legs are “our” children, not “theirs.”

“People in Iraq and in our country are suffering but the rich continue to get richer,” he said.

UC-Berkeley professor Harley Shaiken reinforced that view when he told the convention the top 0.1 percent (that’s right, one-tenth of 1 percent) posted income increases in recent years equivalent to those of the bottom 50 percent.

In his opening speech, UAW President Ron Gettelfinger sent a message to Delphi Corp. that corporate “bottom feeders” who file for bankruptcy to break unions should know the UAW and other unions will “always be there to fight one more day, no matter how long it takes.”

He underscored the union’s demand for health care, saying, “It’s time to have a single-payer, universal, comprehensive, national health care program that covers every man, woman and child in America.” He also called for passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, declaring the union will prepare to do battle in the Senate because “Bush has his veto pen ready.”

Although little was said on the possible sale of Chrysler, Gettelfinger blasted equity and hedge funds circling overhead. “Many of them are out to increase their wealth by stripping and flipping companies,” he charged.

UAW Local 1224 delegate Kenneth Clem, a machine operator in Bellefontaine, Ohio, told the World his company was formerly owned by Dana and is now owned by the Japanese company Daido Metal. The company, which makes engine bearings for Detroit’s Big Three and nearby Honda plants, wants to cut wages and benefits by $6 an hour. But, Clem said, workers were determined to resist, adding, “The organization of Honda would help stop the downward pressure on wages.”

Local 900 delegate Dwayne Walker said the membership is ready for what they know will be a tough contract fight. Walker, a UAW representative at the Ford plant in Wayne, Mich., which makes the Ford Focus, keeps the membership informed on Employee Free Choice, health care and other issues affecting workers both in the plant and where they live.

Walker said health care “was an issue that should have been dealt with a long time ago — we need national health care. We are all part of a community and the union looks out not only for its members but for the rest of the county too.”

The union adopted a resolution on “making employers socially responsible.” It called for international codes of conduct that limit the ability of employers to pit workers in one country against workers in another.

The resolution urged the UAW to coordinate with the International Metalworkers Federation and other international unions to establish company and industry councils to press for high standards of international conduct and the inclusion of labor, environmental, social justice and equality standards in bilateral and regional trade negotiations pursued by the U.S.

Gettelfinger talked to reporters about a recently revealed Toyota memo calling for the company to lower its wage rates to the average state wage where each plant is located. Toyota workers, concerned that the company will begin to reduce labor costs by cutting wages and benefits, have increased their requests for help from the UAW.

On March 31, the UAW participated in a town hall meeting in Lexington, Ky., a short distance from the 6,900 workers employed at Toyota’s flagship plant at Georgetown, Ky. The name of the talk: “The Human Cost of Toyota’s Success.”

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