The Strike Against General Motors Is One Front in a Much Larger Class War

Sean Crawford and Maximillian Alvarez

David Garcia, a United Auto Workers (UAW) member who is employed at the General Motors Co. Flint Assembly plant in Flint, Michigan, pickets outside of the plant as they strike on September 16, 2019. (JEFF KOWALSKY/AFP/Getty Images)

Near­ly 50,000 Gen­er­al Motors (GM) auto work­ers left their posts and marched off the job en masse late Sun­day night. Since then, it’s been all able bod­ies to the pick­et line. The strike is on.

With nego­ti­a­tions between GM and the Unit­ed Auto­mo­bile Work­ers (UAW) lead­er­ship hit­ting an impasse, the 2015 GM col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing agree­ment expired at mid­night on Sep­tem­ber 15. The UAW offi­cial­ly announced the strike after local union lead­ers from around the coun­try con­vened on Sun­day morn­ing. The ensu­ing images of work­ers (includ­ing a coau­thor of this arti­cle) hit­ting pick­et lines this week glow with an elec­tric air of work­er sol­i­dar­i­ty. From afar, one gets the sense of an undi­vid­ed union show­ing its strength — unit­ed in the fight from top to bot­tom. But the view from the pave­ment tells a very dif­fer­ent story. 

Far from a uni­fied front, the largest strike against GM in over a decade reveals some­thing that every­one sit­ting at the bar­gain­ing table in Detroit knows and fears: The divide between the UAW lead­er­ship and the rank and file has nev­er been wider. Much of this has to do with rev­e­la­tions from an FBI cor­rup­tion probe impli­cat­ing for­mer and cur­rent union offi­cials in alleged mis­deeds, includ­ing ram­pant­ly mis­ap­pro­pri­at­ing union funds and abus­ing the trust of their mem­bers. With news that even cur­rent UAW Pres­i­dent Gary Jones is being inves­ti­gat­ed for cor­rup­tion, anger and frus­tra­tion among work­ers is pal­pa­ble. And their feel­ings towards GM exec­u­tives aren’t any rosier. 

Work­ers have watched GM haul in major prof­its after hav­ing been bailed out by the pub­lic (to the tune of $11.2 bil­lion) dur­ing the Great Reces­sion — and kept afloat by the sac­ri­fices its own employ­ees agreed to make. Among those sac­ri­fices was the intro­duc­tion of a tiered wage sys­tem, which allowed GM to bring in more low-wage and tem­po­rary work­ers to do the same jobs for a lot less mon­ey. An osten­si­bly tem­po­rary fix that GM has more or less made per­ma­nent, this tiered sys­tem sows divi­sions on the shop floor, and UAW mem­bers want it gone. 

Work­ers accept­ed these and oth­er belt-tight­en­ing mea­sures when the chips were down. But with GM gen­er­at­ing a com­bined prof­it of $35 bil­lion in North Amer­i­ca over the past three years, it’s clear that the belt remains noose-locked around the rank and file while the engorged bel­lies and bank accounts of GM exec­u­tives con­tin­ue their uncon­strained expan­sion. And after see­ing these prof­its and their own sac­ri­fices reward­ed with plant clo­sures and mass lay­offs, work­ers are right­ful­ly pissed. 

Ask any long-term work­er on the pick­et line and they will tell you just how vivid­ly they remem­ber what they had to give up to keep GM out of bank­rupt­cy a decade ago — and how painful­ly aware they are of GM’s refusal to appre­ci­ate and ade­quate­ly repay them for it. They haven’t for­got­ten, and they’re pre­pared for a long fight. Both GM and the UAW lead­er­ship have to know that they are sit­ting on top of a pow­der keg. 

The rank and file tell the truth, and the truth is that this strike is decades in the mak­ing. The truth is that, like our fel­low work­ers around the coun­try and around the world, auto work­ers have had so much more tak­en from them over the past half cen­tu­ry than they could ever hope to claw back in any col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing agree­ment. And the truth is that what has been lost can only be tak­en back by the force of a demo­c­ra­t­ic rank-and-file move­ment — a move­ment that refus­es to be co-opt­ed by the own­ing class the way the out-of-touch union hier­ar­chies allowed them­selves to be co-opted.

Day in, day out, we sweat and grind under the heavy sun of labor’s lost dreams: the dream of work­ing to live, not liv­ing to work; the dream of work­ers hav­ing greater own­er­ship over our work­places, and hav­ing more of a say in what our econ­o­my pro­duces and how; the dream of work­ers, not own­ers, actu­al­ly being the ones who prof­it from our hard work; the dream of uni­ver­sal, guar­an­teed employ­ment; the dream of neces­si­ties like health­care being insti­tu­tion­al­ized as basic rights so that one’s employ­er could nev­er have the gross­ly unjust pow­er to take them away. A rank-and-file move­ment can and must re-ignite these dreams, and it must do so while rec­og­niz­ing and avoid­ing the pit­falls labor fell into before. 

A strike against GM is one bat­tle in a much larg­er class war waged against work­ing peo­ple by the own­ers of soci­ety. To quote Wal­ter Reuther, There’s a direct rela­tion­ship between the bal­lot box and the bread box, and what the union fights for and wins at the bar­gain­ing table can be tak­en away in the leg­isla­tive halls.”

The big­ger the bar­gain­ing unit, the more pow­er we have. And the rav­ages multi­na­tion­al cor­po­ra­tions like GM wreak upon our com­mu­ni­ties can only be fought with inter­na­tion­al work­er solidarity.

In the past we were uni­fied by geog­ra­phy. Com­pa­nies like GM would enve­lope an entire city. With work­ers liv­ing so close to one anoth­er they could devel­op a cul­ture of sol­i­dar­i­ty that bound them togeth­er. Now the work­force is glob­al, split up over invis­i­ble lines in the dirt, caged with­in imag­ined nation­al com­mu­ni­ties that are held togeth­er by guns, walls and bureau­cra­cies. If our goal is to regain the pow­er we once had, the pow­er that gave birth to the labor move­ment in the first place, we need to broad­en our vision, we need to see the glob­al class strug­gle for what it is, and we need to act accordingly.

Union­ism in one coun­try is no match for cap­i­tal­ism in every coun­try. We can’t just focus on one indus­try, one nation, or one job clas­si­fi­ca­tion. We need to uni­fy with our fel­low work­ers across bor­ders in a col­lec­tive effort to win back what’s ours, the fruits of our labor.

Sean Craw­ford is a mem­ber of Unit­ed Auto Work­ers and Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of Amer­i­ca and a work­er at the Flint Truck Assembly.</.P Max­imil­lian Alvarez is a dual-PhD can­di­date at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan. His writ­ing has been fea­tured in The Baf­fler, Boston Review, Cur­rent Affairs, Truthout, etc. He is the host of Work­ing Peo­ple, a pod­cast by, for, and about the work­ing class today.”
Subscribe and Save 66%

Less than $1.67 an issue