On August 17, Michigan Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer gave a speech at the Democratic convention. Her first words were that the auto industry would have died without the efforts of the Obama administration. Then she demanded that the workers due their part and said that thanks to some supposed volunteers, the Democrats, leading the auto workers, had saved thousands of lives. Is this true?
Whitmer went on to say that:
When, you know, just a few months ago, as our nation began battling COVID-19, auto workers across Michigan spring into action, and they started making protective equipment for doctors and nurses on the front lines. Let me break it down. President Obama and Vice President Biden saved these auto workers livelihoods. Then these workers did their part to save American lives. That’s the story of this great nation… From the jump, we took this pandemic seriously in Michigan. We listened to medical experts. We planned, and with a lot of work from the auto workers and too little help from the White House, we executed our plan. We saved thousands of lives.
General Motors and Chrysler were both in bankruptcy in 2009. The government’s task force (The Presidential Task Force on the Auto Industry) urged the restructuring of the car companies in exchange for loans. General Motors cut thousands of jobs while the UAW (United Auto Workers) agreed to reduce wages and benefits. Wages for new employees were halved, strikes were banned for six years, medical and pension benefits were cut, etc.
The difference between Obama’s plan and Mitt Romney’s proposal – who had been the Republican presidential candidate that same year – was not of substance, but of form. While Romney wanted to use the bankruptcy courts to break union contracts and unilaterally cut benefits and wages, Obama relied on the UAW to do it for him. That’s why the UAW is so grateful to the Obama administration.
The devastating impact that all these changes meant for auto workers saved General Motors, Chrysler and of course the UAW, but it meant a brutal deterioration in workers’ living conditions.
COVID in Michigan
Next question. Were they serious about COVID in Michigan from the beginning? In March, when schools had already closed in order to stop the spread of the virus, the auto industry continued to operate as if nothing had happened. Both management and the union simply told workers to wash their hands. Many workers were concerned about the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) and the dirt in the plants and bathrooms. Soon after, they began to suffer the consequences.
At the North Jefferson plant in Detroit, workers heard that someone tested positive for COVID. At the FCA plant in Sterling Heights, several workers tested positive for COVID. The union leader of Ford Dearborn Truck in Dearborn informs workers that the plant cannot be closed because it concentrates too much production. The same is happening in the rest of the sector, at facilities in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Texas, Missouri, Mexico and Canada.
In Canada, workers at the Fiat Chrysler Windsor plant went on strike on March 12. Fiat Chrysler’s Warren joined the strike on March 16. The next day hundreds of workers in Indiana refused to work the second shift at the Tipton transmission plant of Fiat Chrysler.
The UAW and the three major car companies had reached an agreement stating that only partial rotary closures would be implemented but that some safety measures would be taken. The union and management, interested in keeping the plants open, fought constantly to prevent and break strikes. They threatened Tipton Transmission workers and managed to prevent the strike at Fiat Chrysler’s Warren from spreading throughout the plant. But starting from the following night, workers at two plants in Michigan, Fiat Chrysler’s Sterling Heights (SHAP) and Jefferson North Assembly Plants (JNAP) went on strike. Workers at the Dundee Engine Plant in Ann Arbor, Michigan, also refused to work the next day. The strike soon crossed state lines when workers at the Toledo North Assembly plant in Ohio joined in. In the face of all this, the following shifts were canceled, as well as shifts at other plants, such as at the Ford facility in Michigan.
The strikes and the union
Workers were getting infected and both UAW and management refused to stop production. When a worker tested positive, he was sent home without informing any of his co-workers. Other workers were expected to continue working as if nothing had happened. Nothing was cleaned up either. In the automotive chains everyone works very close together and the same vehicles are touched in quick succession. The possibility of contagion is high. So the workers ended up discovering that the origin of the infections was in their workplace and, once they discovered it, they refused to work.
After these spontaneous strikes that the UAW could not prevent, the Big Three (Fiat Chrysler, Ford and General Motors) announced that they would close all their plants in North America until March 30.
What followed was a media blackout. CNN, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and others published articles that concealed the reason for the plant closures. They claimed that the plants had closed because the UAW demanded it. But, as stated a worker at the Toledo plant:
What really angers me is how the union tried to take credit for the shutdown in March. They claimed they did it. No! Workers protested and walked out. Everyone saw the video where the union official is telling workers to ‘calm down.’ We’re paying union dues to people who coddle the company. They know exactly what is going on in the plant and they do nothing. Our union dues are being used to pay the legal fees for our bribed and indicted officials. They won’t even fight a grievance, so how can we depend on them to fight for our lives?
If hospitals can’t get PPEs they need, how will autoworkers get it?” they continued. “Many of my coworkers have asthma, diabetes, and other underlying health conditions. There is no way we are going to be safe in there. We have 6,000 workers in two shifts, plus truck drivers, plus parts people. How in the world will we be safe in that environment? Before the pandemic, the company always keeps the line moving when workers are injured or drop dead. So, what will it be like with lots of sick people?
The company sees us as expendable. They would like us to quit or die so instead of paying me $29 an hour they can pay someone else $15 an hour. We produce 500 Jeeps every shift, so the less we get paid the more the profit is for the company. Some choice we’re being given—either you go to work and possibly die, or you lose your job.
The volunteer system
As confirmed cases in Michigan kept increasing, Gov. Whitmer announced a statewide closure order on the morning of March 23, which would take effect until April 13. Later, Ford and Fiat Chrysler announced that their plants would reopen a day after the completion of the statewide closure.
At the same time, however, the closure order exempted critical infrastructure … a category including the auto industry. The UAW eventually reached an agreement with the companies that allowed production to continue in the parts distribution warehouses … where supposed volunteers would be working. In reality, the parts distribution workers were given the option to keep working and risk infection or to be fired and replaced by these volunteers, who were in fact temporary workers.
This is what the governor meant when she stated that workers in the auto industry had volunteered to make personal protective equipment.
The strikes in Mexico
On March 30, the Mexican government ordered the closure of all non-essential activities until the end of April. But the trap was already set. As in Michigan, the auto industry was considered essential and the idea was to keep the factories open.
Just one day later, VDO and Novalink workers left the factories in Matamoros. The next day, the workers of Autoliv and Edemsa went on strike. They were followed by Tridonex, Parker, Tyco and Kwalu. As the strikes brought production to a halt against the opposition of management and the union, the plants were forced to close and pay the workers during the closure.
However, other factories in Mexico remained open and 120,000 maquiladoras continued to operate. On April 19, workers discovered that 29 maquiladores had been killed by COVID-19 in Ciudad Juarez alone. Strikes extended to Mexicali, Ciudad Juarez, Matamoros, Nogales and Gómez Palacio in electronics, robotics and auto parts plants. It was these wildcat strikes, not the unions trying to curb them, that managed to force the factories to close and pay them during the closing days.
But U.S. capital is highly dependent on production in Mexico, so Trump began to push AMLO to reopen the essential plants and AMLO, the supposed anti-imperialist leftist, declared that he would ensure that everything would be open and running on May 17.
Democrats have nothing to envy from Trump
In addition, COVID cases in the United States continued to increase. In Michigan the original state order was extended until the end of April. 1232 cases and 15 deaths from coronavirus were confirmed at this time in Michigan. A week before this stay at home order expired, the governor extended it a second time. This time it was to end on May 15th. But later, the order was extended for a third time. It was to last until May 28th. However, the governor, in addition to relaxing some restrictions, announced that manufacturing workers, being essential, would return to work on May 11.
By early May, more than 1,000 new cases were being reported daily and more than 100 people were dying daily in Michigan. Among those deaths were those of not a few auto workers. However, the goal of getting manufacturing workers to work before others was still on track.
We’ll be reopening manufacturing work, and as a part of the my safe start plan to reengage the economy. These are the two big things in this order. Starting on Monday the 11th, workers in manufacturing can begin phasing into work. So, this is a really important moment that I think is critical that we acknowledge something. Manufacturing is an important part of our economy, there’s no question. And as we’ve done the risk assessment, we feel comfortable that with these safety protocols we can safely re-engage. And I think for the purpose of perspective, it’s important to know that manufacturing is about 19% of our economy, and we’ve already got four to 5% that has already engaged as essential. And so this is a sizeable part of our economy, but it is an incremental step. The big three auto suppliers, in agreement with the UAW, will begin phasing in work on the 18th, and they’ll be starting at 25% capacity and phasing up from there. This is truly good news for our state. It’s a major step forward on our My Safe start plan to reengage our economy safely and responsibly.
But as the reopening dates approached, workers in both the U.S. and Mexico increased their resistance to returning to the factories. Cases of COVID-19 kept increasing, and the new safety measures announced by the automakers were far less than adequate… and the workers knew it. As one worker pointed out:
What about the factory workers? What are we to do? If we refuse to return to work, we’ll lose our health care by May 30, we won’t be eligible for unemployment compensation. If we go in on Monday, and do not want to return, we can go on FMLA [medical leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act], which only covers 12 weeks. I used up four weeks plus a week’s vacation taking care of an ill parent in the beginning of the year, so there is not much to fall back on.
The pandemic has opened up my eyes a lot. I see what the entire government is doing to us, I see how the working class is being treated. Elon Musk’s opening Tesla says it all. They don’t care if we live or die. We have no say, no voice.
The workers also expressed their distrust of the unions on the eve of the reopening.
There is a letter from Labor Relations telling us ‘don’t come over’ and talk about anything to them. They said put it in writing instead and forward it. So, they don’t want us coming in there to meet, for their benefit, but they want us to go to work!
This thing with the temperature strip is just a band-aid. You can be carrying the virus and infecting others and show no symptoms. So how is taking the temperature going to help? Am I going to catch something there and bring it home to my kid?
I have no faith in our union. I have been heavily involved in the union in the past, heavily involved. I even went to those conventions in Las Vegas, and after seeing stuff that went on there I became very skeptical. All it was somebody pushing their agenda.
But year after year what I saw was the favoritism. It is still going on. I gave them chance after chance to turn things around, but it never happened. It took me a long time to decide, but after two-and-a-half years I finally just quit the union altogether. I quit paying my dues and everything. When I saw the last contract that was it. I quit because the union was not representing us.
The union says they’re supposed to unite workers but they’re really dividing them. The contract was settled and there are still all these divisions.
They have a slogan: ‘One Ford.’ They are trying to say with that slogan that the workers and Ford are somehow altogether. What they really mean by ‘One Ford’ is that the union and management are all together.
I have said before that you should be able to vote for the president of the union. But I also have considered your demand to form new committees in the plants, to have our own committees. It was not an easy decision to get to this place, but I am ready to move.
The safe reopening meant a new slaughter
The workers were right to be afraid. Once the plants were reopened, contagions immediately reappeared. In Mexico, a hundred maquiladoras opened in early May. By May 18, they were operating at 60 percent. And although auto parts production was planned to reopen on June 1, the plants began to open the week of May 18. Hundreds of maquiladora workers died in the rush to reopen the factories.
COVID also spread to plants in Detroit, Chicago, Kentucky, New York and Indiana as soon as the reopening took place. During the first month of plant reopening, the union and management threatened workers who tried to take medical leave. They also worked constantly to prevent strikes from spreading by temporarily closing plants where workers refused to work.
Forming strike committees against the unions
— king string bean (@GIMMEAPCNOW15) June 26, 2020
On June 20, the death of two workers led to a spontaneous strike of 3,200 workers at three auto parts plants in Matamoros. And on June 25, workers at the JNAP in Detroit refused to work. The strike also extended to the FCA Sterling Heights plant.
Committees, formed by the strikers, were set up to impose shared demands with the other strikers in the other plants. The workers who went on the first strike in the United States after the reopening, those of JNAP, raised six demands.
2. When a case is confirmed, the factory must be closed for 24 hours to carry out a thorough cleaning, not only of the affected area, but of the entire plant. Preventive maintenance is needed to ensure a safe and comfortable working environment.
3. Social distancing should be implemented when entering and leaving the plant and during toilet, lunch and other breaks.
4. The chain should be stopped for 10 minutes every hour to allow workers to remove their masks, rest, and cool down.
5. Workers must undergo regular and universal testing. Self-reported temperature controls and symptoms are not sufficient.
6. If conditions are unsafe, workers have the right to refuse to work without the threat of retaliation by management and the union.
All the other committees that were later formed, at FCA Sterling Heights, Toledo Jeep Assembly, Ford Dearborn Truck Plant, Ford Chicago Assembly, and Indiana Faurecia, based their claims on these six.
The rogue impudence of the Democrats
After this account of events, let’s go back to the Democratic convention. The governor tells us that the auto workers were saved by Obama and Biden’s policies and are therefore indebted to them. Now, he tells us, we must support them by sacrificing our own lives and, if we don’t end up in intensive care or dead before November, vote for them because our lives would still be better protected by a Democratic government.
It would be hard to imagine a greater or more heinous cynicism if the unions were not there to hold that title. It is not worth salvaging them by remembering the UAW’s corruption scandals to blame the union leaders and exonerate the unions themselves. It is not a question of corrupt individuals. The problem is not the union bureaucrats or the Trumpist government. The problem is what they are for, what is the role of the unions and the state. The Democrats want us to look the other way when they blame Trump for the crisis, but their safe plans, in the auto industry or in education, are no different in substance and in their consequences for the workers. And the same goes for the advocates of struggling for a new direction in the unions. It’s the same game.
The experience across North America does not reflect a particular meanness of local trade unionists, it reflects the commitment of unions around the world to maintain production in order to save business investment, putting capital above the safety and lives of workers.