Autoworkers face showdown with corporate giants

“We’re tired. We’re tired of having a hammer over our head,” stated Jim Hagopian, an employee of Delphi Corporation, the largest U.S. auto parts supplier. Hagopian, along with many of the other 25,000 Delphi employees represented by the United Auto Workers, say they will not agree to the company’s proposed major wage cuts. “According to one UAW local, its members would no longer be able to afford the cars they help build.” (Detroit Free Press, Oct. 7, 2005)

Delphi plant, Flint, Michigan

Photo: Jim West

Delphi was part of U.S. auto giant General Motors until it was spun off in 1999. It is pressuring the union to agree to a pay cut of 63 percent, elimination of the cost-of-living pay increase, reduction of holidays and vacation time and major cuts in its pension plan. Pension plan cuts include a refusal to accept any new members after Jan. 1, 2006. If the union accepts these demands, the average wage for workers will be reduced from $27 to $11 an hour.

In response to the UAW’s refusal to accept the proposed agreement, Delphi Corporation filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on Oct. 8. If approved, the U.S. Trustee—a member of the Justice Department—will appoint a committee with the aim of restructuring Delphi Corporation in the interest of the creditors and to the detriment of the workers. 

In an Oct. 8 statement, UAW President Ron Gettelfinger and UAW Vice President Richard Shoemaker responded, “Once again, we see the disgusting spectacle of the people at the top taking care of themselves at the same time they are demanding extraordinary sacrifices from their hourly workers, engineers, administrative and support staff, mid-level managers and others.” 

Union officials’ assertions were validated when Delphi decided to increase the severance pay of top executives by six months—just 24 hours before filing bankruptcy. Now, if the top bosses are laid off or if they resign due to elimination of their jobs, they are eligible for 18 months of the pay they received prior to the new cuts in pay.

Negotiations are continuing. Delphi is continuing to push for concessions from the UAW. 
Big stockholders and banks are watching the Delphi negotiations carefully. They hope that concessions will have an effect going far beyond Delphi. One auto analyst believes any acceptance of wage or benefit cuts by United Auto Workers could “ripple into other unionized automotive agreements in the country.” (Crains Detroit Business, Oct. 10, 2005)

The UAW vows to continue to fight the proposed cuts by Delphi. The stakes are high. The bankruptcy filing is being used as a weapon against the union. It would bring the government into the struggle squarely on the side of the company. The company is threatening to close plants and lay off of thousands of workers.

New basis for unity

The strike can still be an effective tool for fighting bosses’ attacks.

Photo: Rebecca Cook

To fight the anti-union assault, six unions that represent workers at Delphi formed the “Mobilizing@Delphi Coalition” on Nov. 3. The UAW, the Electrical Workers and Communications Workers, the Steelworkers, the Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the Machinists and Aerospace Workers and the Operating Engineers—representing over 5 million workers, including 33,650 at Delphi—have vowed to coordinate their efforts against Delphi’s cutback campaign.

A Nov. 7 statement by the coalition read, “We are outraged by Delphi’s attempt to use the bankruptcy process to dictate the radical destruction of the living standards of America’s industrial workers, while at the same time it plans to reward some 500 ‘key employees’ with up to 10 percent of the company’s stock and cash bonuses totaling $87.9 million once Delphi emerges from bankruptcy.”

This new coalition offers hope to the tens of thousands of workers employed by Delphi. Union solidarity combined with a fighting program and a broad appeal to workers around the country could turn the struggle at Delphi into a major class battle with wide implications for U.S. workers. At this early stage, though, Mobilizing@Delphi is sending mixed messages.

On the one hand, some who attended the formation meeting of this new coalition raised the prospect of striking to fight the proposed cuts. A strike at Delphi would be felt across the country. It would immediately be felt at GM, Delphi’s main client, and could potentially shut down the auto giant.

On the other hand, the statement announcing the Mobilizing@Delphi Coalition displayed the kind of cross-class appeals that have weakened the labor movement for decades. For example, the statement notes, “many others have a stake in this fight.” And of course, many workers would agree.

But are the union leaders talking about the millions of workers across the country, in and out of unions, that could be mobilized against corporate plundering? No.

“Delphi’s salaried employees will soon be targets of [CEO Steve Miller’s] strategy as well. … Delphi shareholders will be left holding worthless scraps of paper. And Delphi’s plan to close numerous plants and tech centers in the United States will have a ripple effect, hurting small businesses and state and local governments.”

These appeals to “broad” layers among politicians and business sectors can only run counter to the preparations needed for militant and determined struggle. Those are the sectors that will always try to soften the struggle and weaken the workers’ militancy.

Stakes high in Delphi struggle

For the past decade, strikes declined in numbers to a historic low. The owners have taken advantage of the passivity to roll back wages and benefits in every sector. Increased globalization has strengthened the employers’ ability to withstand the hardship and loss of profits due to a strike. 

Labor’s response to the attacks of the ruling class must correspond to their increasing power and ability to withstand the traditional methods of struggle. Without abandoning the strike as a weapon, militant workers are facing the growing need to find other strategies that can widen class solidarity. The stakes in the battle with Delphi are large. A victory for the Delphi workers would give confidence and strength to the labor movement as a whole in the effort to turn back the anti-union offensive of the past decades.

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