"HOW DO YOU WIN THERE?"
By Tom Laney
Tom Laney recently received a report from Greg Shotwell, an autoworker from Grand Rapids, on the recent UAW Delegate Assembly. What follows are two letters Tom sent to Greg in response to the report. Tom is an autoworker at the Ford plant in St. Paul and a member of UAW Local 879.
Thanks for the copy. I hope you don't mind if I quote you extensively on the convention in Nuts & Bolts [a shop-floor newsletter produced by Tom]. A friend says, "It would really help if we had some reps who would tell the truth about the International UAW."
But here's my problem: For as long as there has been a UAW there has been a dissident presence at the conventions. It keeps getting smaller, but courageous people continue to fight on the floor against big odds. You have honesty, reason and solidarity sense on your side but how do you win there?
I see your report as hard evidence that the UAW is corrupt, is powerful, is heading unchecked down the road of corporate shilliness. The report says that the direction is not only unbraked, it is gathering momentum and can crush anyone in its path.
What should we do? I think it a good idea that you point out the bankruptcy of the UAW leaders. I don't think it’s a good idea to suggest that the truly heroic figures on the floor have a chance to change the UAW's direction. I believe it’s over for the UAW and has been for years. Your report is the most recent confirmation of that fact.
So, I think that if the good folks you write about would forget about these phony conventions and concentrate on ways to link up local to local, we could get on our way to building a new movement where democracy would be paramount and the corporations would be viewed as the socially destructive, savage, altogether expendable organizations they really are.
I don't think these links can be forged thru the council and sub council and convention system. They need to be built by autoworkers connecting outside the corrupt influence of the UAW very much like the CAT strikers were doing against the contract sellout. I see this as a much more practical idea than encouraging people to run for elections to gain office to reform something putrid enough to gag a fish wrapper. Most newly elected people stick with us for about 30 days and fold and become the newest personalities in the continuing sellout game. A handful of gutsy others carry the fight but its never enough, always contained, always frustrated. The fight is so easily managed by the CC [the "Cooperative Caucus," Greg’s term for the Administrative Caucus that dominates the UAW] it becomes a lesson to those with activist inclinations. I think it is marginally better than not fighting at all but why can't we talk about another way out of all this? Why can’t we report the charade but suggest ways to win?
It’s likely that most of the delegates ran as people of conscience, reformers, reporters, well-intentioned autoworkers. Your convention report proves again that the CC has no problem managing nearly all delegates. And, for those unmanageable guys like Dave Yettaw [a dissident leader, former Local 599 president], Yokich [UAW president] makes a point of calling on him just to show the delegation what a big, fair, democratic guy he is. Then they get to cheer on cue when poor Steve [Yokich] reaches exasperation point and is forced to cut the mike. Don't we just love it?
Anyways, how much longer are we going to play in their ballpark under their rules and their fix? We cannot win there. Isn't it time to view the late, great UAW as the present company union, not unlike the one autoworkers fought against in the 20's & 30's?
I really appreciate your description of these creeps and will be putting it out here unless there's a problem. Fear and Loathing at Cobo, Part 1003.
Thanks a lot, I always enjoy your stuff
We're not so new at this game. I look back at all the years of hyperactivism, demanding democratic unionism, solidarity, speedup fights, etc. but see a UAW that is more corrupt than ever, corporations more powerful and ruthless than ever with the possible exception of the robber-baron days. So, the big question for me is how do we fight in a winning cause? What do we want... a sort of humanized upper class which is a little more sensitive or a society that is fair and democratic and run by real people?
As you say, you talk and talk and write and write but not many seem to react. I think this is the case everywhere because we are severely outgunned for one thing. Who talks and writes more than the corporations and their UAW pals? We're not matched too well in the information game.
Where do we have the advantage? I think it is in experiencing the daily work lives of friends who continue to practice unionism by supporting each other. Anyone can look around their job and see good people helping each other out in many ways every day. But it's hard to make this into a bigger deal because of the fear.
Why are people afraid? Isn't it because the one organization designed to save everyone of us—the UAW—is in the hands of guys who believe in competition and capitalism? The UAW underwrites the fear factor for the corporations by letting locals know when they fight they will fight alone and when they fight they will lose. They attack solidarity. They believe ordinary autoworkers are stupid and uninterested and they are right on the second count— who in their right mind would be interested in this labor-corporatism of the new UAW?
So, we already recognize the first truth: That the people who are paying the dues are pretty good for the most part and understand the situation but require confirmation.
The problem is the next step I think, which might be to see how we can make everyone hopeful about changing the way people view the future of not the UAW which I don't believe has or deserves a future, but the future of our kids and grandkids and our society. Left alone, it looks to me like one big corporation will rule the world soon. Right now, corporate values run trade organizations which overrule nation- states not democratically but on the worst of terms, "comparative advantage," where competitiveness rules everything.
I agree that people need to know they are not alone. I think we need to travel and meet as many people as we can, finding ways to hear what they have to say about competing against each other and how they would like to live their work lives and family lives given a choice. I don't think UAW meetings are places where we can do that. As you pointed out, UAW conventions are not even places where you can listen to the truth about watershed losses like the CAT strike.
I think politics where people trade war stories about elections and the bankruptcy of the UAW are not the thing that give people much hope unless there is a credible, truly democratic political alternative. In fact, they tend to demoralize many folks when the reports roll in and people see the depth of the corruption. They say, "what's the use," and talk about getting out.
A credible, democratic alternative is right before us on the job in the way most workers respect others’ rights and problems. I'm lucky enough to work in a group situation. We load and unload trains of autos and it’s very physical work. The foreman makes the work assignment but everything about how the job gets done is decided by the work crews, including the numbers of units each two-man team does (never more than half a unit difference), how we cover guys, when we take breaks and the length of breaks. Seniority rules on the best spots on the train. Split questions are decided by vote. Surrounding all the work rules which these guys have put in place over many years is the concern most workers have for each other but is harder to see in the plants where workers have been spaced apart on the assembly lines and otherwise separated by the implementation of favoritism and company unionism. These guys help each other out all the time. They may be the best fed group in the plant. There are fish fries, bratwurst feeds, smorgies all the time. These are the guys who show me New Democracy is on the right track, though some of them are quite opposed to the idea of revolution. They were very excited about the last elections but not so excited when they met Ron Gettelfinger [a UAW big-shot] and realized that he would be the guy who controlled whoever got elected in our local.
Anyways, I believe these guys are normal. They believe in democracy and equality and they are pretty tough about it. They are not going to participate in any UAW that forces appointees on them or laughs at their ideas as Gettelfinger did. But I think they would be interested in a movement that took on the bigshot business creeps (including the UAW) and fought for a real democratic system. But most of them are not going to go out and get this movement started. It's going to be up to the activists and whether anything gets started or not depends on our ability to understand our own relationships and extend the conversations that come out of them about solidarity and democracy.
I've been thinking that the UAW was a great union during its organizing days because it challenged the very idea of capitalism. Since it was organizing, the UAW had to be democratic and many real autoworkers had a hand in its militancy. Its opposition to capitalism came from communists, socialists and trade unionists who didn't care if capitalism failed because they had a Marxist alternative. Most real autoworkers were not much more interested in communism than capitalism but the transition was to capitalist leadership instead of a democratic system. It was the communists and socialists who consolidated power in the UAW and chopped up the UAW's early democracy. The destruction of UAW democracy, finalized by Walter Reuther, makes it impossible for reformers to have any effect on the capitalists who run the UAW today.
Well, I've got to go to the zoo with the grandkids. Sorry to ramble on like this but I do believe the answer is the same as always—listening to and learning from as many people as possible to try to figure out a way to build a great society.
Originally published in New Democracy Newsletter, Sept-Oct 1999.