THE DEATH OF AN AUTO WORKER
by Tom Laney
December 18, 2003
Last week while the leaders of my union's bureaucracy lolled on Florida's bars and beaches with the enemy, one of the real solidarity leaders in our factory passed on.
Terry Erdrich, 59, who I worked next to on the chassis line during my learning days of how to be a union assembly worker, and years later, on the trains, never failed to teach us something about being union. Terry's unionism didn't have anything to do with the bureaucrats or elections or fraternizing with the bosses. His kind of union was the cement of friendship and support and direct action. He was one of the most conscientious, smart workers I've ever known. He was brilliant in his approach to work. His dad had been killed when he was a kid and Terry had to work since the age of 12. He could use his years of work experience to educate anyone on how you do the job and who you rely on to get it done fairly. As an "old-fashioned" union, tough-cut Ford worker, Terry didn't pay much attention to stop watches and time studies and speedup pressures. He knew what he was capable of doing well and when I met him about 27 years ago, he was telling the foreman what he was going to do and how fast he was going to do it. He said that he would do what was fair and what was good for the car. And he had a lot of support from his friends around him because he backed them up too. He understood the reciprocity of solidarity and what made the work fair. Guys like Terry always left their job better for the next worker.
A few years ago, we spent five months defending our train jobs against a speedup. Five months is a longtime to be under the Ford/UAW gun. They sent little Ford/UAW speedup squads out with stopwatches and video to scrutinize every move. They held scare meetings with us so company and UAW reps could threaten us with replacement by scabs but each of these meetings ended with Terry dismantling their work measurement numbers and telling THEM what WE were going to do. When one of the company sucks from another crew short-cut across our train track in front of Terry and me during this job fight, Terry offered to slap him upside the head with one of our two-foot chain wrenches if he did it again. Terry solved that problem and we finally won this fight because we had quite a few workers like Terry. We were not so lucky this year. Terry and many of the other high seniority train-workers had moved on to other, less physical jobs or retired. They were replaced with more selfish, company-oriented workers corrupted by the UAW's dog eat dog programs, who had no interest in standing up to the company when they said they would take our train unloading work nonunion. But for those of us who did fight to save these jobs, Terry was there every day to encourage us. We lost those jobs two weeks ago when Ford/UAW moved them down the road to nonunion workers making a bit over $10hr. We lost those jobs because we didn't have enough solidarity people left like Terry Erdrich to save them.
Terry was a car expert. He was a member of the finest group of car builders in the world - the street rodders. He was a longtime member of the Minnesota Street Rodders Association and a champion dragster on his rubber and fuel-smoked summer week-ends spent at tracks across the Midwest with his wife Connie. Terry had forgotten more about building cars than most Ford execs care to know.
Terry Erdrich was a down to earth, solidarity and mechanical genius. He was fundamental in his knowledge of work and the profound and powerful friendships that work produces. He knew that the mechanical part of work had to stay human and he knew that friendships on the job made that happen and he enjoyed the hell out of it. He was intelligent, funny and clever and hugely entertaining with us. I don't remember him ever having much to do with the UAW or Ford bosses other than talking back to them. We were good enough for Terry.
But Ron Gettelfinger, now the UAW President, made the mistake of bumping into our train crew a few years back and began to brag himself up and babble on about what a terrific pension contract he got for us. Terry ripped Gettelfinger about deducting our social security, which Terry had been paying into since a kid of 12, from his UAW pension. When the UAW bigshot asked Terry, "What do you want to give up to get that?" Terry asked why we should give up anything? It was easily obvious that Gettelfinger doesn't have to face many questioners like Terry. Before long, the embarrassed and out-common-sensed Gettelfinger was moving along after sheepishly admitting that he and his staff get two pensions with a full COLA. Terry's name for Gettelfinger became "Whadayawantagiveuptogetthat?"
At his memorial service, packed with auto-workers and street rodders and friends and family, Connie had laid out dozens and dozens of little street rod models in front of a sign saying to take one in Terry's memory. So I have a little green, Hudson muscle car on my desk now to think of Terry. But my best memories will be of Terry's courage in standing up for our jobs and all of us and of being a friend. And I want others who won't have the pleasure and honor of knowing this great man, to know that his spirit and his expressed duty to others and his sense of justice on the job is proof that we can all still see -- no matter the abysmal and corrupt UAW bureaucracy -- that we can still see the power of friendship and solidarity at work in all our factories and neighborhoods. And to always remember that the Terry Erdrichs, and all the friends we have everywhere, that their friendly spirit is the real union and it is this spirit that gives us all the reason in the world to be hopeful about ourselves and our children's future.
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