Issue 222 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published August/September 1998 Copyright © Socialist Review
'GM was forced to move the contested machinery back into the plant past workers standing arm in arm on the picket line singing "solidarity forever"'
A government commission expelled Teamsters president Ron Carey from the union on 28 July, exactly a year after Carey led the UPS strikers to victory. Officially, Carey was removed as president and then expelled because he 'failed to exercise his required duty of inquiry' when one of the organisers of his 1996 presidential campaign took part in a financial swap scheme to funnel money into the Carey campaign. Carey was not accused of participating in the underhand deal, but merely of not knowing about it. Yet such transactions are 'business as usual' in the world of America's top heavy union bureaucracy. The commission has acknowledged, in fact, that Carey's opponent, Jimmy Hoffa Jr (son of the famed mobster who ran the Teamsters for decades), was suspected of impropriety when he claimed to have received $2 million in small notes from bingo games and bake sales. The commission decided, however, not to discipline Hoffa, who will in all likelihood win the Teamsters presidency in the rerun of the election this autumn.
In reality, Carey's expulsion from the Teamsters is an act of revenge by the employers, and an attempt to kill a rising labour movement by biting off its head. It is also an opportunity to discredit a union reformer, since Carey won the Teamsters union presidency in 1991 at the helm of a democratic reform movement. Republicans in Congress, not to mention UPS management, have openly embraced the return of the Teamsters union to the Hoffa empire. Arch-conservative Senator Orrin Hatch predicted, 'Hoffa is going to be the labour leader of the 21st century.' At age 62 Ron Carey has now been banned from membership of the union to which he has belonged since 1956, when he first went to work at UPS. Yet not a single union leader has managed to utter a word of protest at this injustice, or at the government's right to intervene in internal union affairs.
But destroying Carey has not contained the working class anger which was first unleashed during the national UPS strike last summer, when 185,000 UPS workers struck against corporate greed and won the first major labour victory in more than two decades. If anything, the anger is bursting through the seams at every opportunity. In the seventh year of the current economic recovery, with profits soaring and unemployment at a near record low, workers still do not have job security. Corporations are cutting jobs at a rate that is 32 percent higher than a year ago. A recent survey showed that nearly half of all corporate executives plan to ,cut the payroll' in the next few months. Since 1994 factory workers' wages and benefits have lagged behind inflation by 9 percent.
Over the last few months strikes have broken out with growing rapidity, not just for higher wages, but against the use of non-union labour to displace union jobs, and against forced overtime and speedup on the job. Philadelphia transit workers paralysed the city's public transportation system for 40 days in June and July and forced the city to scrap plans to privatise its routes and subcontract workers. On 7 and 8 July hundreds of thousands of Puerto Rican workers went out on a general strike in solidarity with telephone workers after Governor Pedro Rosello announced plans to privatise the phone service. Truckers shut down the road to the San Juan airport, and 5,000 workers, many armed with baseball bats, fought off riot police who tried to move them. In August 73,000 telephone workers from the Communications Workers of America (CWA) along the entire East Coast struck for two days, preceded by a wildcat walkout in New York city, and won every key demand. The new two year contract ends non-union subcontracting and bars the company from laying off workers. Workers cheered on picket lines when they heard the settlement, and some started carrying their own hand made picket signs, such as one which said, 'CWA wins in two days--unbelievable.'
The General Motors workers' 54 day strike has had the greatest national impact. GM remains the world's largest corporation, even though its share has grown somewhat smaller, from 2.3 percent of US economic output in 1970 to 1.5 percent today. Its annual sales of $178 billion still dwarf those of most other corporations. GM's North American operations alone recorded a net profit of $1.6 billion in the first quarter of this year, its best ever. GM's productivity lags behind that of its competitors, however. While GM makes $850 in profits for every car it produces, it is drooling over the $1,520 per car earned by Ford. That is the basis on which General Motors management has been pleading poverty to justify slashing jobs, 80,000 in the last six years, from a total of 370,000. All told, 27 plants have been closed down, with three more planned to close.
On 5 June 9,200 members of the United Auto Workers (UAW) went on strike at two auto parts plants in Flint, Michigan, to protest against GM's decision to send union work to outside suppliers elsewhere in the US and in Mexico. GM management provoked one strike when It moved machinery for a new car model out of the plant, implying the new model would be built elsewhere. Within weeks the strike shut down 27 of GM's 29 North American assembly plants, causing GM to lay off 192,000 workers. By the end of the strike this had cost the company more than $2 billion. While the union did not win a clear victory, the agreement essentially keeps the status quo until the national contract comes up in September 1999. GM certainly did not win, which most workers perceived as a victory in itself after two decades of concessions. Symbolically, GM was forced to move die contested machinery back into the plant, past workers standing arm in arm on the picket line singing 'Solidarity Forever'.
But this wave of strikes is taking place at what most mainstream economists now predict is the tail end of the economic recovery. A year from now employers may be more determined not to give ground. UPS has already reneged on its agreement to provide full time jobs, the centrepiece of the contract won in last year's strike. Bitter struggles undoubtedly he ahead. But the tide is turning. Last year's UPS strike showed that workers can strike and win, even against the biggest corporations. That lesson is beginning to transform the terrain of the class struggle in the US.