Confronting corporate power directly constitutes the sharpest, most challenging, and most politically advanced form of political struggle, of class struggle. At a time of compromise, half-steps, modest aspirations, and low expectations, these moments are unfortunately rare. One such moment occurred with the determined, courageous efforts of the single-payer advocates in their effort to retire profit-driven insurance corporations from the field of health care provision. In the face of the predictable demonology of “socialism” and “government involvement”, they have fought a relentless struggle – including civil disobedience – to put patients before profits. Single-payer, in its HR676 incarnation, attacks corporate dominance by financing health care from taxes on the rich as well as kicking out the private insurance companies. Where the compromised public option feeds the rapacious insurance industry and burdens the working class, single-payer is a direct assault on the interests of the ownership class, an assault benefiting the vast majority of US citizens. While victory is hardly assured, their efforts will continue to gather momentum long after any tepid, corporate-friendly legislation is passed by the Congress.
Now we have the stirrings of another – long overdue, but heartily welcome – counterattack in the war against corporate dominance. The union workers at Ford Motor Company have voted overwhelmingly to reject a concessionary proposal offered by Ford and urged by the United Autoworkers leadership.
Nationwide, over 70% of the Ford UAW membership voted against contract concessions that were demanded by the auto giant. The UAW top leadership which has negotiated and urged ratification of decades of concessions met a fierce resistance from the rank-and-file and local leaders. The head of the UAW’s Ford division was booed and heckled at local meetings in Michigan and President Ron Gettelfinger’s former local rejected the proposal by over 80% despite his personnel appearance and appeal. The happy message of “win-win” class collaboration fell on deaf ears this time. By rejecting these concessions, workers chose a different path – the path of class struggle.
Knowing full well of the relative advantages it enjoys, Ford argued that it deserved the same deal that the UAW accepted for its bankrupt competitors, GM and Chrysler. The US government granted each of the other two domestic auto makers a bailout in return for a promise to close plants, layoff employees, and shed brands and dealerships. The UAW sweetened the deal further by granting further concessions on its 2007 contract with GM and Chrysler. In fact, the UAW had accepted two sets of concessions to Ford since the 2007 contract, and this third group of demands spurred the membership’s overwhelming rejection. This is in stark contrast to the French auto bailouts that required the domestic producers to retain jobs in order to receive government aid. In the case of France, a rabid conservative President Sarkozy was faced down by a militant labor movement and popular support. In the case of the US, a corporate-coddling government and a collaborationist union leadership kicked autoworkers in the teeth.
Cynically, Ford and the UAW International leaders agreed to schedule the concession ratification before the declaration of Ford’s third quarter earnings so they could best make the case for “making Ford competitive” against the crippled competition. Nonetheless, the UAW members soundly rejected the contract concessions even before Ford announced net third quarter earning of over a billion dollars, the most since 2006.
Nothing shows the bankruptcy of the business union model better than this crass fealty to the corporate interests of The Ford Motor Company. Nothing shows an awakening rank-and-file militancy better than the overwhelming rejection of this offensive proposal.
After years of urging concessions that have stripped benefits and hourly wages, the UAW top leadership is now faced with a membership in open rebellion against its no-struggle policies. The membership recognizes, far better than the top officials, that it is now time to stop the retreat and use the power of working people to improve their future. For too long the union’s top leaders have acted as a kind of third party linking the position of the workers to the continued prosperity of the corporations and “selling” that bankrupt notion to the members. The union belongs to the members and this vote demonstrates that they want it back. This is a banner moment for working class consciousness and anti-corporate action. The top leadership of the union should heed this or step aside.
For the left, this is a re-affirmation of the centrality of the labor movement in its confrontation with wealth and power. The action of tens of thousands of autoworkers rocks the corporate agenda far more than high-sounding electoral rhetoric or parliamentary horse-trading. As these early sprouts of emerging labor independence mature, the left must help nurture this movement into a powerful social force, a force worthy of the UAW’s legacy. For some on the left, this requires shedding the illusions and comfortable ties with the top leadership of the labor movement. The reality is that the contradiction between the needs of working people and a complacent, corporate-accommodating leadership will grow ever more apparent.