Autoworkers Forced to Take Concessions in Industry Bailout
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Republicans refused to hand over the loan without promises of even more UAW concessions. Republicans, apparently expert enough about autos to renegotiate contracts in a matter of hours, blamed the UAW for refusing to drive down wages to parity with nonunion, foreign-owned auto facilities in the South by next year.
Autoworkers, of course, already agreed to similar concessions in November 2007, when they voted up contracts that put starting wages lower than those in nonunion plants. The major cost difference between nonunion and union automakers in the United States is not wages but retiree benefits, particularly health care costs. In demanding that the UAW reduce costs to the automakers, the Republicans were insisting that more than a million retirees -- 40 percent of whom are not yet eligible for Medicare -- put their health care coverage at risk.
The UAW made a last-ditch effort to save the bridge loan and placate viciously anti-union Southern senators. That wasn't enough for Republicans, who -- along with four Democrats -- voted down the bill.
"It's part of the right-wing agenda to do away with unions or to severely cripple any kind of labor struggle in this country," Talbot-Ward said. "Or maybe it's a little payback for union support of the Obama campaign."
Fast disappearing is an era when workers on assembly lines can afford to buy the vehicles they make. When the UAW agreed to a midcontract opener in 2005, and a 2007 agreement that lowered new-hire wages to $14.50 an hour, the union struggled to squeak out approval from an angry (and increasingly financially unstable) membership.
Blaming the Workers
UAW President Ron Gettelfinger later said his decision to negotiate with a lone Republican senator was a mistake, especially when the whole pantomime seemed like a warm-up act for Republican opposition to the card-check bill, the Employee Free Choice Act. But the administration's insistence on linking the bridge loan to wage cuts angered autoworkers even more.
Jim Theisen, a member of UAW Local 212, who joined the autoworker caravan to Washington, said the caravan brought the message to Capitol Hill that rank-and-file wages aren't the industry's problem, and that cutting union wages harms everyone.
"Our Southern brothers and sisters don't get $24 an hour out of the kindness of the auto owners' hearts," he said. "If there wasn't a union in the North, they'd be getting $10 an hour."
Tiffany Ten Eyck, a veteran of the successful Taco Bell Boycott campaign, is promotions coordinator for Labor Notes.