By Andy Piascik
The sit-down strike by General Motors workers in the winter of 1936-37 was one of the galvanizing events in U.S. labor history. Similarly, the efforts of the primarily African-American autoworkers of the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement and the other RUM’s sparked the resurgence of rank and file militancy in the late 1960’s and 1970’s. In more recent years, the New Directions caucus and Soldiers of Solidarity carried on the radical tradition in the United Automobile Workers.
Gregg Shotwell was active in both New Directions and SOS for much of his 30 years working at General Motors during which time the UAW’s rolls fell from 1.5 million members to 382,513. He published Live Bait and Ammo, a boisterous newsletter that regularly skewered management as well as official union passivity. Often hilarious, always biting and sometimes depressing, Live Bait and Ammo documented the devastating impact the collaboration between automakers and the UAW has had on workers in the factories.
Haymarket Books published a collection of Shotwell’s Live Bait and Ammo in Autoworkers Under the Gun: A Shop-Floor View of the End of the American Dream. In this interview, Shotwell talks about the onslaught of auto management, the decline of the UAW and the efforts of autoworkers to resist both.
Piascik: What was the situation in the auto industry and in the UAW when you began as an autoworker in 1979?
Shotwell: It was at that time American auto companies first started to experience serious competition from foreign automakers and they weren’t prepared for the contest. US consumers demanded fuel efficient vehicles and the American auto companies took advantage of the opportunity to upgrade their products by laying off hundreds of thousands of auto workers. In the best of times the companies took all the credit for success but when times got tough they put all the blame on workers and then proceeded to design some of the most notorious failures in auto history. Ralph Nader pilloried the Corvair but it didn’t take Consumer Reports to bury the Vega, the Pinto, and the Gremlin beneath the irredeemable crust of US car history.
In the Eighties GM, Ford, and Chrysler were obsolete manufacturing enterprises. Rather than retool and revamp to make more competitive products, the companies took advantage of the situation to attack the UAW and blame poor quality and lackluster production on workers. The companies never relinquished what we called “paragraph 8” in the UAW-GM contract, or “management’s right to manage.” That is, management reserved the right not only to hire and fire but to design both the product and the means of production. Publicly, workers bore the brunt of the blame for GM’s failure, but on the inside, pencil pushers made all the decisions.
In 1981, we started producing valve lifters for Toyota and the first batch we shipped was returned for inferior quality. Toyota taught GM how to produce first time quality products at our plant and I suspect at other GM plants as well. It wasn’t magic. They simply raised the bar.
For its part, the UAW responded to the crisis of foreign competition by promoting hatred of brothers and sisters in other countries and encouraging UAW members to identify with the bosses.
Piascik: Were you involved in the union right from the start?
Shotwell: No. My initial response to the sensory assault of auto production —the noise, the smell, the relentless pressure to work faster and faster— was to drink alcohol. I wasn’t alone but the addiction kept me undercover. It wasn’t until I quit drinking that I began to get involved in the union. I needed to feel integrated in the workplace and getting active in the union helped me to feel like I was a part of a larger and more meaningful organization. I never would have believed it was the beginning of the end for the UAW.
We agreed on the name Soldiers of Solidarity at our third meeting because we felt like we were engaged in a battle; we felt our struggle was not limited to the UAW or Delphi; the solution was solidarity; and the acronym was a distress signal. Initially, we decided not to focus on elections and internal union disputes because of the urgency of the crisis. A number of us had been in New Directions and we didn’t want workers to think our idea of a fight back was electoral. We wanted to focus on direct action and work to rule. We understood that we were fighting the company, a cooperative union, and a capitalist government but we kept the focus on the company to attract as many workers as possible. We knew how ruthless the Administrative Caucus that controls the UAW could be but the Administrative Caucus was at the bargaining table and most members were pinning their hopes on them. As it turned out, the Administrative Caucus didn’t waste any time attacking us anyway.
As a result, SOS was forced into behaving like an underground movement. We were in the shadows dismantling the apparatus of profit and threatening to take down the whole edifice of partnership if our demands weren’t met. I said in one of my newsletters, “Management likes to throw money at problems. Let’s give them a big problem to throw money at.” We did. As a result, GM and Delphi, started meeting the primary needs of a majority of the members — safe pensions, early retirement, subsidized wages and transfers back to GM. Workers made choices based on what was best for their families and resistance deflated. The downside to this guerilla defense was that we lacked a structure that could sustain us after the immediate crisis ended. SOS continued to advocate direct action but our numbers dwindled as so many chose retirement.
Shotwell: There is a lot of dissatisfaction but actual resistance is minimal at this point. I think we have to bear in mind how fragile workers feel in the current economy. The government hasn’t done anything to help create jobs, organize unions, or improve opportunities for working class people. Whenever there is a crisis for unions or working people in general, Obama is Missing In Action. If unemployment benefits are extended, it is always at the expense of the working class as a whole like with the extension of the Bush tax cuts.
I do believe, however, that momentum is building, primarily because the new generation of autoworkers doesn’t have the golden handcuffs: pension and health care in retirement. The previous generation was bound to the company and the union by the promise of retirement after thirty years. Young autoworkers don’t have anything to look forward to except a weekly paycheck and they are grossly underpaid for the work they perform. They have no reason to feel loyal to the company or the union that stabbed them in the back. As this new generation takes control — and they will soon gain a majority in the UAW — I believe we will see more resistance to the union’s collaboration with the bosses.