THE TRAGIC FATE OF THE DELPHI STRUGGLE
by Dave Stratman
June 21, 2006
Delphi, General Motors’ largest parts supplier, is in bankruptcy court seeking permission to break labor contracts which run through 2007 with its 33,000 hourly employees. Delphi is demanding a 40% wage cut and reductions in the benefits and pensions of current and retired auto workers. It plans to close 25 plants and fire 23,000 employees. Delphi claims it needs these cuts to become competitive in the global marketplace, the same argument that Ford and GM and countless other corporations have made in demanding wage and benefit give-backs.
The United Auto Workers (UAW), which represents most Delphi workers, has a long history of collaborating with the auto companies against its members to make the corporations more profitable. The UAW has already pushed through drastic benefit cuts for Ford and GM retirees, and now seems poised to make huge concessions to Delphi. At its recent Constitutional Convention, UAW President Ron Gettelfinger declared that the UAW must help the automakers become more competitive, and that this would require big sacrifices from auto workers. Gettelfinger’s declaration should come as no surprise. As auto worker Bill Hanline has shown, two-thirds of the UAW’s annual budget comes from corporate funds. The UAW is in effect a subsidiary of the Big Three car companies.
Last fall some Delphi workers began to organize to resist Delphi’s demands. The struggle got off to a promising start as Delphi workers Gregg Shotwell, Todd Jordan, and other rank and filers, acting without UAW sanction, organized a series of public meetings for Delphi and other interested auto workers and supporters. These meetings took place in Grand Rapids, Kokomo, Flint, Dayton, and other cities with large Delphi emplacements, and together they attracted hundreds of workers. Everyone who wanted to had a chance to speak, and the air was thick with angry denunciations of UAW betrayals and sharp insights into the meaning of the Delphi struggle for workers everywhere. At the meeting in Flint workers voted unanimously to found a new organization, Soldiers of Solidarity, to lead the struggle.
As the workers made clear at their meetings, there is a great deal at stake in the Delphi struggle–not only the livelihood of many thousands of current or retired Delphi workers, but the future of working people in America. Auto workers play a pivotal role in the work force. Anything that can be done to auto workers, traditionally the strongest among blue-collar workers, can be done twice-over to other workers. The Delphi struggle is taking place within a history of twenty-five years of serious defeats for American workers. American working people desperately need a win to get back in the game.
DECADES OF DEFEAT
The many working class defeats since the PATCO disaster of 1981 have some important things in common. One is that the striking or locked-out workers at PATCO, Hormel, Staley, Caterpillar, Detroit News, Accuride, and others were betrayed by the International unions. Another is that, in each of these struggles, the strikers restricted their focus to their own contract with their own employers and raised none of the larger strike-related issues which could have won them mass support from the public.
While they called for "No Concessions," in none of them did the strikers explain that their struggle was part of a larger class war over the direction of US society. They did not expose the anti-democratic, anti-human nature of the corporate system or attempt to rally other working people in a struggle against it. Their struggles expressed a different set of values from capitalist values–values which they share with most people in our society–but they did not try to connect with the public on this basis.
In addition the workers engaged in these struggles did not expose the role that the unions had played in aiding and abetting the corporate attack on working people. Instead of forming fighting organizations outside the unions, workers in each of these fights allowed their struggles to be dominated by the very unions which were sabotaging them. Instead of calling on other workers to spread the strikes to their own workplaces, the striking workers merely called on sympathetic workers to send them food and financial support.
In short, in none of these struggles did the strikers do the most obvious and necessary things to win public support and win their strike, and in none of them did they call on workers to fulfill their historic mission: to make a new world.
The result was not only the defeat of each of these costly and bitter fights. The result was even worse: that nothing good came from them. No lessons were learned. No advances were made for the workers involved or for the working class as a whole. In the twenty-five years since PATCO, union workers have kept repeating the same mistakes, over and over again, like junkies coming back for another fix.
SOLDIERS OF SOLIDARITY: A NEW BEGINNING?
With the outbreak of the Delphi rank and file resistance movement and the founding of Soldiers of Solidarity, it seemed that here, finally, someone was marching in a winning direction: building the struggle outside the union and placing the particular struggle firmly in its context of the struggle of all working people. Unfortunately, though, this was not to be. Though it began with the appearance of being different, the current struggle at Delphi is in great danger of being only the latest in a long and tragic line. Under the leadership of Gregg Shotwell and the Soldiers of Solidarity, the movement is repeating the same mistakes as earlier struggles and seems likely to come to the same isolated and futile end.
Workers at the public meetings clearly understood that the Delphi struggle has great significance for all workers. They understood that Delphi’s calls for wage cuts is the logic of capitalism. They understood that it will take a much broader movement than Delphi workers alone to win this fight. They understood that the real fight is over the direction of our society and what sort of world our children and grandchildren will inherit.
Gregg Shotwell, however, and the Soldiers of Solidarity did not incorporate any of this understanding into their strategy. Instead Shotwell strictly limited the scope of the struggle. There would be no larger issues raised. They would not reach out to other workers to build a movement rejecting the capitalist logic of a competitive race to the bottom. They would not expose the treachery of the UAW. They would not speak of creating a better world. All their efforts would instead be focused on an in-plant strategy to put pressure on Delphi. Shotwell repeated the fatuous phrase, "Workers rule when they work to rule," over and over, as if it had magical powers. The idea was that, if Delphi workers worked exactly by the book, they would in effect slow down production, thus making Delphi more vulnerable to a strike, should matters come to that (though Shotwell in his "Live Bait and Ammo"[LB&A] newsletters repeatedly cautioned against striking). The idea was also that waging an in-plant work-to-rule would build solidarity within and between the Delphi plants.
But Delphi workers cannot win unless they win the public to their side, and they cannot win the public except by rejecting the logic of global competition–unless they reject, in other words, the logic of capitalism. (Shotwell argues that Delphi’s problems are the result of poor management.) The livelihoods of the vast majority of people in the US are threatened by the same competitive logic. To reject this logic and the capitalist system behind it is the way for Delphi workers to get the great majority of people on their side. Delphi workers could say to the world, "We don’t have to live this way. It is only because we are in the grip of the global profit system and under the control of the rich that our lives are under assault." Global competition is the only argument in Delphi’s favor. Delphi workers could turn this argument into Delphi’s and the corporate system’s Achilles’ heel. Who wants to live in a system that guarantees an ever-worsening future for your family?
The UAW is owned, lock, stock, and barrel, by the Big Three and cannot be relied on by workers. Yet rather than build a workers’ movement truly independent of the union, Shotwell has led disgruntled auto workers back into the arms of the UAW. When Shotwell in Kokomo announced the "Work to rule" strategy, he said, "It is important to pull in the official union to do a work to rule. That’s why we’re so fortunate that Gettelfinger [the UAW president] slipped up and endorsed work to rule." Shotwell was calling for workers already clear on the UAW’s multiple betrayals to work with the company-funded union to organize solidarity and prepare for a possible strike–a strategy that could only undermine the most astute and experienced workers and confuse the others.
Rather than exposing the UAW for its decades of betrayal, Shotwell criticizes only the current UAW leadership, the Administration Caucus, which he calls the "Concessions Caucus"–the inference being that all would be well if the UAW were under different leadership. Shotwell makes the bizarre claim that the UAW had been "tricked" by General Motors into decades of concessionary contracts, competitive programs designed to undermine worker solidarity, and strikebreaking. Shotwell has proclaimed that, while earlier generations had founded the UAW, "It is our generation’s turn to defend the union."
The Delphi workers will either break the grip of the UAW on their thoughts and actions or they will go down to defeat. Shotwell has long been a member of New Directions, a reform caucus within the UAW. It appears that reforming the UAW is still his goal. Shotwell and a handful of Soldiers of Solidarity members won delegate slots to the UAW Convention, where they made predictably futile gestures in a totally stage-managed convention. Focusing on union reform and conducting a strategy in unity with the union guarantees that the Delphi struggle will never escape the union’s control.
Some supporters of Shotwell argue that Shotwell doesn’t really mean what he says about the UAW and doesn’t believe it’s reformable; he is forced to talk this way to bring the majority of UAW members along. But this condescending argument is a cop-out. It’s saying that UAW members, who have been fed decades of deception by their union, need to be fed more deception by the leaders of the Delphi struggle. Nothing good will come out of a movement not committed to telling the truth. If it is really the case that only a minority of workers clearly understand the truth about their union, then it is up to them to communicate that truth to others, not deceive and manipulate them.
There is still time for Soldiers of Solidarity to reverse course, to step clearly outside the UAW, to expose the union’s role for all to see, and to call on workers everywhere to join a movement which challenges the death-grip of capitalism on our society. If they would do this, at least something positive would have come from their struggle. It would mark the beginning of a new movement. Unless the Soldiers of Solidarity do reverse their course, the Delphi struggle will be but one more way station in the tragic race to the bottom for all workers.
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