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August, 2005

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Workers Face Challenge of Vanishing Jobs - Situation of Michigan Auto Workers Shows Problem Facing All of Us

FLINT, Mich. — In 1976, the state of Michigan passed P.A. 198, which allowed local cities and townships to grant corporations 50 percent tax abatements over a 12-year period to invest in a given municipality. In 1998, another state law was passed that allows companies in economically distressed areas (such as Flint) to seek 100 percent tax breaks on new personal property such as equipment and machinery. These were touted as incentives to create jobs, and one would think that, after millions upon millions of dollars, localities across the state, especially Flint, would be brimming with jobs.

Just last year, General Motors asked for and received a whopping $40 million in state and local tax breaks. They claimed they “needed” it to build a new V-6 engine plant and to upgrade the Flint Truck Assembly. The engine plant will hire approximately 350 workers from the existing pool of laid off workers and other G.M. employees (notice – no new employees).When the abatements came before the Flint City Council, there was no debate whatsoever. The City Council and the mayor, who otherwise engage in turf battles day in and day out, GAVE THE NOD to give GM whatever they wanted. One councilman summarized their position saying “Whatever it takes to get GM here.” Included in the tax relief package was an additional $1 million from the city going towards infrastructure which included new road work, a new water pumping station and new sewer lines.

In the meantime, Flint residents are faced with water shut offs on a daily basis. Just to get water turned on when you move onto a new home or apartment costs a $250 deposit. When this policy was challenged, the argument was that this was being done to help bring fiscal solvency to our cash-strapped city and get some control over its deficits. Is there a more glaring example of local government willingness to pull out all stops to provide for corporate needs in opposition to and at the expense of the needs of its citizens?

More and more, these issues are forcing the labor movement in general and the United Auto Workers (UAW) in particular to evaluate and think anew about its strategies. It used to be said that “When Better Cars Are Built Buick Will Build Them.” Now, under the demands of the global economy, Motor Trend magazine frames it best, saying “When Better Buicks Are Built, China Will Build Them.”

There’s no question that GM faces its own set of economic challenges, having been reduced to Junk Bond status in May and recently announcing 25,000 job losses over the next few years.Yet the labor movement and the UAW in particular is also facing its own challenges. Since 1980, the UAW membership as a whole has fallen by half from 1.5 million to 700,000. GM alone had a half million active workers in the late 1970s, but has 111,000 today. Aside from the UAW decline in sheer numbers, it is increasingly evident that workers who are no longer needed have no rights that GM is bound to respect.

As this article goes to print, Rick Wagoner, GM’s chairman and chief executive has threatened to cut the company’s health spending with or without union support. UAW members brace for cuts in what is considered the “crème de le crème” in Health Care benefits. Who and how much will be cut is unknown. However, retirees are especially vulnerable since they have less political leverage than their active employed Brothers and Sisters. (Analysts say workers could not legally strike over cuts to health benefits of retired workers. Retirees would have to go to court.) UAW President Ron Gettlefinger has vowed the union will not re-open the contract but “will work with the company to reduce health care costs.” He went on to say that the solution to the crisis is a single payer National Health Care Plan. (See the related article on this page for another example of how little the industry cares for workers it doesn’t need.)

It’s one of the most powerful lines in the UAW National Athem “Solidarity Forever”: “We can bring to birth a New World on the ashes of the Old.”

How will we achieve such a new world? How do we begin to fight in our own interest? What must be done to pass on the good life to future generations? Can the UAW ever hope to return to its former glory as a leader in the causes of Labor? Stay Tuned….

Disposable Workers, Disposable Records

A recent scandal in Flint involving employee records and a plant that was being demolished shows just how little concern the auto industry has for workers it no longer needs, and how the UAW International leadership has hurt its own credibility with workers. In October of last year, demolition began on Plant 04, a recently closed Delphi plant. Formerly known as Chevy “in the Hole” and the site of the victorious1937 Sit Down strike, this closed plant held a special place in the hearts of union members and the Flint community at large.

In January, a Flint alternative independent newspaper called The Uncommon Sense learned that employee records may have been left in the plant. They immediately called upon Delphi to look into the matter. Apparently, Delphi chose to ignore the situation. Before long, hundreds of pages of confidential employee records consisting of Social Security numbers and medical files had made their way to the offices of The Uncommon Sense. Records of approximately 200 employees were involved, many of them retirees. As the scandal unfolded, The Uncommon Sense paper made valiant attempts to protect those affected by contacting Delphi, the UAW, and many of the employees themselves. Not only did Delphi close the plant, but could they think any less of the people they just let go by leaving their personal files tossed among the rubble?? After losing your job, now you are subjected to invasion of privacy at least and possibly identity theft!!

In early February, The Uncommon Sense published the story of the outrage, informing the community at large. Delphi demanded return of the records, and Uncommon Sense refused to hand them over. A few days later, Delphi (once a part of GM and now the world’s largest auto supplier) filed suit against the newspaper. Even the local pro-company newspaper, the Flint Journal, properly framed the incident as David vs. Goliath. A few days later still, the UAW shocked the affected employees and the community as a whole by filing a brief supporting Delphi’s position in the case. Days later the newspaper gave the records to the company and the lawsuit was withdrawn.

To this day, shocked and appalled rank and file union members have not been given a rationale for why the UAW did what they did. Many of the workers whose privacy rights were violated are retaining their own legal counsel to pursue the matter. The decision by the UAW International diminished its credibility, something Uncommon Sense illustrated with a cartoon on the cover of its March issue showing the UAW in bed with Delphi and the Flint Journal.


This article originated in the People's Tribune
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