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Issue 31, October 1998

US strike lessons

US SECRETARY OF State, Madeleine Albright, recently reiterated that Asian governments must accept the 'bitter medicine' of austerity: job and wage cuts, etc. Clinton has threatened economic sanctions if they hesitate.

For decades, US workers considered themselves as exceptions to this kind of 'medicine', not subject to the class conflicts that enraged and radicalised workers in other countries. But the new realities workers face internationally are reflected in the US also as workers try to defend themselves from the capitalists' offensive. This was seen in July's 40,000-strong rally of union construction workers that got out of the control of the union leaders, as well as the police, over the use of non-union contractors for state jobs in New York City. The same process can be seen in the militant two-day general strike that shut down Puerto Rico against the government's telecommunications privatisation policy.

The recent militant strikes of South Korean workers and the strike of the General Motors (GM) workers in Flint, Michigan, this summer bear a certain similarity in the sense that they were not over wages and conditions, but the rules of international investment and job losses. These, and strikes in US airlines, and telephone company workers, reflect the pent-up anger at falling wages and the insecurity wrought by the economic restructuring of the last two decades, as well as a sense of confidence because of a tight labour market and booming profits. What is even more significant is that these protests are not simply trade union disputes but actions that touch a broader class dimension. They are a reflection of the onset of a deepening class consciousness that will have far-reaching implications for politics in the US.

The 52-day strike of the two GM auto parts plants in Flint, the birthplace of the United Auto Workers union (UAW) and the site of the famed 1937 sit-down strike, idled over 150,000 workers in the US, Canada and Mexico. It was the longest strike in the auto industry since the 1930s and cost GM over $2bn. In many ways it was a strike where ordinary workers challenged GM's strategy for corporate investment - an issue beyond traditional trade unionism - which made the strike more political in scope. That was the main reason it lasted a lot longer than anticipated. Significantly, despite the barrage of the media over 'greedy workers', a CBS poll found a majority of people supporting the strikers over what they perceive as greedy corporate bosses.

  The strike started over productivity and job security at a metal stamping plant as the company continues its drive to downsize and move parts production to non-union or low cost producers. GM has been aggressively cutting its labour costs and work force, determined to become as efficient and as profitable as its major competitors, Ford and Chrysler.

In 1980, there were 77,000 GM jobs in Flint. Today there are less than 35,000. Nationally, GM has reduced its hourly workforce from 351,000 in 1987 to 225,000 today and Wall Street is demanding another 50,000 job losses. At the same time, GM plans to increase car production in Mexico from 300,000 units now to 600,000 by the year 2006. The strike ended with the company promising not to shut down the metal stamping plant for another two years, to 'consult' more with the union leadership in return for a 'no-strike pledge' in three crucial parts plants, while continuing with its plans to downsize.

The strike revealed the bankruptcy of the union's policy of 'cooperation' and 'team concept', its acceptance of speed-ups and outsourcing (contracting out work to lower-wage shops). The result has been a piecemeal approach to the companies' generalised offensive and any agreements reached one day are broken the next by the companies.

What is needed is a national strategy to reject the bankrupt policies of the UAW leadership and serious preparation to counter the auto companies' plans, and an international campaign to build ties and solidarity with auto workers in Canada, Mexico and other countries. A determined struggle by auto and other workers to organise the unorganised, fight deterioration of working conditions, forge a militant union leadership and build a mass political movement in the US are the only alternatives workers have to the insecurity and exploitation of capitalism.

Alan Jones

For the latest developments in the US, subscribe to Justice, the monthly socialist newspaper of Labor Militant: PO BOX 5447 Astoria, NY 11105, USA

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