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The shift to electric cars and the fight for a shorter work week

President-elect Joe Biden held a meeting Nov. 16 with business leaders including General Motors CEO Mary Barra. Discussed, among other things, was how to make the United States the international leader in manufacturing electric vehicles and their parts.

What do electric vehicles mean for workers?

The production of electric vehicles requires far less labor than cars powered by internal combustion engines, with half as many parts and requiring 30 percent less hours to build. Assembly of the vehicles’ component parts is more highly automated and requires less maintenance. (Detroit News, Nov. 2)

The collaboration between the federal government and auto executives to move to electric vehicle production — as beneficial as such vehicles may be for reducing vehicle emissions — will have a devastating impact on auto workers’ jobs if the workers don’t organize and fight back.

What can auto workers do to effectively challenge this disastrous job loss being planned by the corporate executives and their government backers? They must raise the demand for a shorter work week, 30 hours work for 40 hours pay, and guaranteed lifetime jobs, so that workers get the benefits of this technology.

Biden: “Savior” of the auto industry?

Biden likes to portray himself as the “savior” of the auto industry through his role in the GM and Chrysler bailouts from 2008 to 2010. At that time, the Obama-Biden administration provided $80 billion to the auto industry — $51 billion to GM, $12.5 billion to Chrysler, and $17.2 billion to Ally Financial, GM’s finance division.

But what did that bailout mean for the auto workers? A report by Austan Goolsbee and Alan Krueger, two members of the Obama-Biden economic team, notes that GM closed a dozen plants and eliminated more than 20,000 jobs as conditions for the bailout. Eleven hundred of 6,100 GM dealerships closed. Health benefits were cut for more than 330,000 retirees and surviving spouses in the United States. Chrysler shut more than a dozen plants. The two-tier wage system was expanded with wages for new hires cut to about half the pay as that of longtime union members. Defined benefit pensions were eliminated for new hires and replaced with 401(k) plans.

A key part of labor’s history

The demand for a short work week with no loss of pay is not a new one in the working-class movement. In the book “Work Without End, Abandoning Shorter Hours for the Right to Work,” by Benjamin Hunnicutt (Temple University Press, 1988), the author traces the history of the struggle for a shorter work week. He notes that as early as 1925 the American Federation of Labor developed the “productivity theory of shorter hours,” maintaining that workers were entitled to an increasing share of the benefits derived from industrial increases. The 1926 AFL annual meeting passed a resolution advocating “a progressive shortening of the hours of labor and the days per week.”

The Black-Connerly bills were introduced in the U.S Senate and House in the 1930s calling for a 30-hour work week, which was passed in the Senate. Francis Perkins, Secretary of Labor under Franklin Roosevelt, proposed a 30-hour work week bill coupled with a minimum wage, although FDR later withdrew his support. AFL president William Green advocated for the six-hour work day and 30-hour work week to be included in all industrial codes under the National Industrial Recovery Act. The AFL continued to push for a 30-hour work week at rallies and at their conventions in the 1930s.

UAW revived demand for 30 for 40

The book “Labor’s Time, Shorter Hours, the UAW and the Struggle for American Unionism,” by Jonathan Cutler (Temple University Press, 2004), describes how the issue of a shorter work week and 30 hours work for 40 hours pay became prominent in the United Auto Workers union in the 1940s and 1950s. When GM chair Erwin Wilson called for expanding the workweek to 45 hours in 1947, Walter Reuther, running for UAW president at that time, answered: “Workers don’t believe our future and the future of America lies in going back. … With the advanced technology we have … we are planning a 30 hour work week, with higher pay and higher living standards than we ever had, and we can do it.”

A resolution for a 30-hour work week for 40 hours pay was brought to the 1953 UAW convention and debated there. The 1955 bargaining convention adopted a shorter work week as one of the demands for the union. However, it was abandoned by the leadership in the contract that was negotiated.

The demand for a shorter work week resurfaced in the UAW in the 1970s. A conference, held at UAW Local 22 in Detroit, demanded a shorter week with no loss of pay so that workers would get the benefits of new technology. And in the 1976 and 1979 collective bargaining agreements, the union fought for and won a modified shorter work week in the form of paid personal holidays or PPH days. One week a month, every worker would work 32 hours for 40 hours pay. The day off, the PPH day, was mandatory.

Even this modest shorter work week forced the auto makers to hire tens of thousands of workers to cover extra time off. And it was the workers who would never miss a day, despite the grind of the assembly line, who appreciated it the most.

Union won guaranteed lifetime jobs in 1980s

In addition to the demands for a shorter work week, it’s time to resurect the demand for guaranteed lifetime jobs. In the 1980s, a rank-and-file movement led by the Job is a Right Campaign organized to stop GM’s large scale plant closings, asserting that workers have a property right to their jobs.

In response to this rank and file movement, the UAW leadership negotiated a moratorium on future plant closings in the 1987 contract. And most significantly, they negotiated lifetime jobs for auto workers. Workers were guaranteed their wages during times of economic downturn. If there wasn’t work to be done in the plants, they were placed in the “jobs bank,” doing service for the community paid for by the auto bosses.

Unfortunately, as the auto restructuring intensified, and especially with the government bailout conditioned on concessions by the workers as described above, many of these gains have been lost over the years. Even 30-and-out pensions, where workers could retire with a full pension after 30 years no matter their age, a hallmark of the UAW since the Reuther years of the 1950s, are disappearing as the bulk of auto workers hired since 2015 don’t even get a pension upon retirement.

Time to revive this workers’ struggle

It’s time for a rank and file movement to revive the militant tradition of the labor movement and revive the demands for a shorter work week, 30 hours work for 40 hours pay and guaranteed lifetime jobs. The workers who produce all the wealth must demand that they be the beneficiaries of new technology.

Whether in the auto industry, in the growing number of Amazon warehouses, at fast food establishments or anywhere else, union organizing and struggles for 30 hours work for 40 hours pay will lift the struggles of all workers everywhere. Socialists and communists in the workers’ struggle, like in the 1930s, will provide political and organizational leadership to these burgeoning struggles.

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