The Radical Tradition of Autoworkers

The sit-down strike by General Motors workers in the winter of 1936-37 was one of the galvanizing events in U.S. labor history. Similarly, the efforts of the primarily African-American autoworkers of the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM) sparked the resurgence of rank and file militancy in the late 1960s and 1970s. In more recent years, the New Directions caucus and Soldiers of Solidarity carried on the radical tradition in the United Automobile Workers.

Gregg Shotwell was active in both New Directions and SOS for much of his 30 years working at General Motors, during which time the UAW’s rolls fell from 1.5 million members to 382,513. He published “Live Bait and Ammo,” a boisterous newsletter that regularly skewered management as well as official union passivity. Often hilarious, always biting, and sometimes depressing, “Live Bait and Ammo” documented the devastating impact the collaboration between auto-makers and the UAW has had on workers in the factories.

Haymarket Books published a collection of Shotwell’s “Live Bait and Ammo” in Autoworkers Under the Gun: A Shop-Floor View of the End of the American Dream. In this interview, Shotwell talks about the onslaught of auto management, the decline of the UAW, and the efforts of autoworkers to resist both.

PIASCIK: What was the situation in the auto industry and in the UAW when you began as an autoworker in 1979?

Shotwell: At that time, American auto companies started to experience serious competition from foreign automakers and they weren’t prepared for the contest.U.S. consumers demanded fuel efficient vehicles and the American auto companies took advantage of the opportunity to upgrade their products by laying off hundreds of thousands of auto workers. In the best of times, the companies took all the credit for success, but when times got tough, they put all the blame on workers and then proceeded to design some of the most notorious failures in auto history. Ralph Nader pilloried the Corvair, but it didn’t take Consumer Reports to bury the Vega, the Pinto, and the Gremlin beneath the irredeemable crust of U.S. car history.

In the 1980s, GM, Ford, and Chrysler were obsolete manufacturing enterprises. Rather than retool and revamp to make more competitive products, the companies took advantage of the situation to attack the UAW and blame poor quality and lackluster production on workers. The companies never relinquished what we called “paragraph 8” in the UAW-GM contract, or “management’s right to manage.” That is, management reserved the right not only to hire and fire, but to design both the product and the means of production.

In 1981, we started producing valve lifters for Toyota and the first batch we shipped was returned for inferior quality. Toyota taught GM how to produce quality products at our plant and I suspect at other GM plants as well. It wasn’t magic. They simply raised the bar. For its part, the UAW responded to the crisis of foreign competition by promoting hatred of brothers and sisters in other countries and encouraging UAW members to identify with the bosses.

Were you involved in the union right from the start?

No. My initial response to the sensory assault of auto production—the noise, the smell, the relentless pressure to work faster and faster—was to drink alcohol. I wasn’t alone, but the addiction kept me undercover. It wasn’t until I quit drinking that I began to get involved in the union. I needed to feel integrated in the workplace and getting active in the union helped me to feel like I was part of a larger and more meaningful organization. I never would have believed it was the beginning of the end for the UAW.

In Autoworkers Under the Gun, you talk about how workers had far more control of the shop floor 30-plus years ago than now. Can you elaborate on that?

Automation and lean production methods, which are an intensification of Taylorism, have successfully sped up and dumbed down the jobs. In the 1970s, auto production required a lot more people power. Our sheer numbers gave us a greater sense of influence on the job and in society at large. Workers had more control over production and the pace of the work because manufacturing depended more on workers’ knowledge, skills, and muscle.

Today, everything is automated, computerized, and heavily monitored. As a result human labor is devalued and workers feel less important. Thirty years ago, we also had a union culture that advocated confrontation rather than cooperation with the boss. There was a clear demarcation between union and management. In the 1980s, management attempted to blur that difference and the UAW went along with this ridiculous idea that the boss was your friend rather than someone who wanted you to work harder for less. It’s been a painful history lesson and one that UAW President Bob King has failed to acknowledge, despite the overwhelming evidence that concessions and cooperation do not save jobs.

In my early years, whenever management would start to crack down, we retaliated by slowing down production. The bosses learned quickly that if they wanted to meet production goals, the best way to do that was to treat the people who did the work with respect. If I was running production and the boss gave me a hard time, I would create a problem with the machine and write it up for a job setter, who in turn would shut it down and write it up for a skilled tradesperson. When I told him the boss was on my back he would ask, “How long do you want it down?” This wasn’t something that we organized, it was part of the shop floor culture. We agreed never to do someone else’s job, we had clear job definitions or work rules and we adamantly refused to violate our contract. Today, the UAW promotes speed up, multi-tasking, and job definitions or work rules which are so broad they are worthless. Workers today enjoy less autonomy because they have less support from the official union and a shop floor culture of cooperation rather than confrontation with management.

Why, after so many years where “cooperation” with management has been so devastating to autoworkers, is the UAW pushing it harder than ever?

Because they are getting paid by the company. The Big Three (GM, Ford, Chrysler) set up separate tax-exempt nonprofit corporations which are managed by the company and the union, but financed solely by the companies. It’s a 501-C. As a result, salaries for UAW International appointees are subsidized by the company. The Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act (LMRDA) requires that unions make all financial records available to the membership, but these corporations are separate legal entities.

More generally, many unions, not the just the UAW, have lost their bearings. Union leaders don’t have a worldview independent of the corporations they serve. The institution of labor is infected with opportunists who claim we can cure the afflictions of capitalism with a heavier dose of capitalism. As a result, union leaders advocate that we work harder for less and help the companies eliminate jobs. Competition between workers and cooperation with bosses is an anti-union policy, but it makes perfect sense to union leaders who have more in common with bosses than workers.

You belong to an organization of rank and file autoworkers called Soldiers of Solidarity. What is SOS and what kind of work does it do?

SOS was a spontaneous reaction to an urgent crisis when Delphi hired bankruptcy specialist Steve Miller, who threatened to cut our wages 66 percent, eliminate pensions, reduce benefits, and sell or close all but five Delphi plants. The UAW didn’t respond, so I called for a meeting of rank and file UAW members to discuss what we should do to defend ourselves. Autoworkers and retirees from five states representing all the major automakers and suppliers came. They recognized that Delphi was the lead domino and if they took us down, the other companies would follow suit.


Andy Piascik is a long-time activist who has written about working class issues for Z, Union Democracy Review, Labor Notes, and other publications. Protest photo “GM WORKERS ARE NOT DISPOSABLE” by Frank Hammer.