UAW to bargain for social justice and partnership with employers

At its Special Convention on Collective Bargaining, the United Auto Workers adopted a  resolution outlining its bargaining goals that are one part social justice vision, one part pragmatic bargaining blueprint, and one part wishful thinking.

With auto maker contract negotiations looming this summer, the UAW called together representatives from its locals, which include many locals that represent public, non-profit, and workers in industries other than auto,  for a three-day meeting between March 22 and March 24 to plan the union’s bargaining approach in the coming years. The result was a resolution outlining the goals and vision that will guide UAW as it negotiates new contracts.

“Our union has one overriding bargaining goal: to win justice, not just for our members, but for workers across our country and around the world,” reads the opening sentence of the resolution. The key to winning justice, according to the resolution, is to build union power that will convince employers to accept the union as a partner, and the key to getting companies accept the union as a partner is increased union density. 

In the auto industry, the key to building union density lies in the South where eight foreign auto makers, including Toyota, Nissan, and Volkswagen, have built non-union plants. The UAW has intensified its organizing efforts aimed at these non-union plant. 

UAW’s bargaining resolution includes a list of principles for a free and fair organizing drive that it hopes will lower company resistance to the drive.  The principles include secret ballot elections, no disparaging of the other side, no promises of wage or benefit increases by either side, and equal access to workers. Should workers choose the union, the UAW pledges that it will work in partnership with the employer to help it achieve success.

But the idea that these companies, which expressly set up operations in the anti-union South to avoid having to deal with the UAW, will agree to free and fair organizing drive may be wishful thinking. When asked by the Chattanooga Times Free Press whether Volkswagen, which is building a new plant in the city, would be amenable to UAW’s overtures, Volkswagen’s Guenther Scherelis replied non-commitally by e-mail, “At Volkswagen Chattanooga, the employees will decide for themselves about their representation.”

The bargaining resolution does break some new ground, at least for US labor unions. It talks about the need to address the issue of precarious work, (part-time, contract, contingent. or temporary work with few if any benefits and no job security). More companies are employing precarious workers to help lower labor costs, which the resolution says is helping to create a permanent underclass.

The resolution recognizes that in some instances, temporary work may be necessary, but that temps should have union protection, access to permanent jobs when they become available, and where the use of  temporary or contingent workers is well established (like universities where the UAW has organized teaching assistants) job security for these workers should be enhanced.

The resolution contains an expansive list of issues for bargaining. In the auto industry, the UAW wants to “bargain aggressively to increase the domestic production of advanced fuel-saving technologies.”  The union also wants to bargain for work and family benefits, including full benefits for domestic partners, and it wants contracts to include language that will allow members to become more active in their communities. It also recognizes the need to eliminate, or at least compress, two-tiered wage rates but will do so gradually.

The resolution also calls for more worker participation in management decisions. We must redouble our effort “to seek and obtain a voice in decision-making at all levels of the workplace,” reads the resolution, which also envisions establishing factory-based workers’ councils that have a say in decisions regarding production and processes.

One thing absent from the resolution is a call for worker militancy. The resolution emphasizes the importance of an engaged and mobilized union membership, but there is only one reference to strikes and that in the context of including language in contracts about the right to strike over outsourcing issues.

Moving strikes and other militant actions to the background and  fore grounding  company/union partnerships may be the pragmatic thing to do now. After all in the last 30 years, we haven’t won many strikes and some have been downright disastrous.

On the other hand, today’s ruling class is in a triumphalist mood and doesn’t seem to be all that interested in taking on  workplace partners. Furthermore, recent moves to deny public workers collective bargaining rights and expand right-to-work-for-less laws shows that part of our ruling class has made lowering wages and benefits its priority, and the other part hasn’t done much to disavow this effort. All of which suggests that any bargaining strategy that emphasizes company/union partnership at the expense of worker militancy may be little more than wishful thinking.

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