The GM Strike

The GM

By David Bacon

Ending the strike of two auto parts plants near
Detroit—a process which used to take just a few days—has instead lasted weeks.
But delay and stubborn conflict is not the most unique factor marking this strike.
It’s the fact that General Motors strikers have been forced to confront the
decision-making process governing the world economy—determining where investment
flows, which plants grow and which ones die.

The strike shows the shape
of conflicts to come. Pushed by their employers, U.S. workers are slowly but surely
joining labor movements abroad, who are also shoved against the wall by the global
economic system. GM began by reneging on a commitment to the local union at the Flint
Metal Center near Detroit, whose huge presses stamp out body parts for almost all the
company’s vehicles. Three years ago, GM management offered to trade a work practice,
one which has made life on the line a little more human, for new investment which would
guarantee the factory’s future.

For decades, workers at
Flint have worked at a manic pace through breaks and meals, so they could get off work a
few minutes early when their production quota was filled. GM wanted workers to stay a full
eight hours on the line. In return, the company promised it would bring new machinery into
the plant, making it as productive as its newest factories in Mexico and Brazil. But new
investment never materialized. Eventually the workers walked out to force the issue. When
they stopped producing parts, two dozen other plants that depended on them were forced to
halt production as well.

The strike started as a
fight over jobs. The union at the Flint Metal Center knows well that without new
investment, production will gradually be transferred to those plants where the company has
installed new machinery. Falling production means disappearing jobs.  But in order to
protect those jobs, workers had to challenge GM’s strategy for corporate investment.
GM has chosen to gradually abandon its U.S. factories, and concentrate on building new
facilities elsewhere. A week after the strike started in Flint, a leaked company document
detailed corporate plans to increase production in Mexico from 300,000 to 600,000 vehicles
by 2006. GM’s Delphi parts division, whose Delphi East plant struck along with the
Flint Metal Center, is already Mexico’s largest private employer, with 72,000

While 150,000 U.S.,
Canadian, and Mexican workers have been idled by the strike, they have generally viewed
the cause as their own. Even in Mexico, where wages are a tenth those in Detroit, workers
are told the company can find a cheaper place to build the next factory. GM’s
investment priorities are the central problem workers face in every plant. If the union
wins in Flint, it will be easier for them to face the same dilemma. The strikers
don’t propose to prohibit GM investment in Mexico or other countries. They’re
not protectionists. They are simply demanding  that the company invest enough in the
U.S. to maintain the existing level of production, and a comparable level of technology.
But that demand has made the strike political and very difficult to settle. GM will not
have its workers participate in decisions over investment strategy. To the company, this
is a sacred right bequeathed by capitalism.

Workers outside the U.S.,
however, are looking at the GM strike, wondering what took U.S. workers so long to take up
the issue. Visiting the U.S. last spring, Yoon Youngmo, a leader of the militant South
Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), chided his counterparts here for not fighting
harder for their own jobs. “You make it more difficult,” he said, “for us
to defend our jobs in Korea, because the government and the chaebols constantly tell us to
look at America. ‘In America,’ they say, ‘unions don’t try to stop
layoffs or job elimination, and they’re the most advanced unions in the world. Be
more reasonable’.”

In Flint, Michigan and
Seoul, South Korea, unions are no longer striking over wages and benefits, but over the
rules which govern which factories shut down, and how many workers will see their jobs
disappear in the process.

Flint and Seoul are not
exceptional. Puerto Rico just endured a two-day general strike over the privatization of
its telephone system, which threatens to eliminate thousands of jobs. In Russia, hundreds
of coal miners have camped in front of Yeltsin’s White House for months, calling on
him to resign over policies which will close half the country’s mines, and which
cannot even assure the payment of miners’ wages. Yeltsin now threatens to rule by
decree to enforce the IMF’s austerity plan.

U.S. workers for decades
viewed themselves as exceptions to all this—not subject to the same class conflict
which has radicalized workers elsewhere. But they’re being taught a new reality.
Capital flows where the profits are highest. All countries must compete to create the most
favorable conditions for investment.

Union organizers have a
saying—“the boss is the best teacher.” General Motors is proving them

David Bacon is a
freelance writer and photographer.