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Read it and Revolt

Read it and Revolt

by Susan Rosenthal

BOOK REVIEW: Autoworkers Under the Gun: A Shop-Floor View of the End of the American Dream, by Gregg Shotwell. Haymarket (2011).

Between 1998 and 2009, autoworker Gregg Shotwell fired a series of shop-floor bulletins at the corrupt heart of General Motors and its junior partner, the United Auto Workers (UAW) bureaucracy.

With passion, wit and humor, Shotwell exposed how General Motors (GM) stole American workers’ pensions, slashed wages and shed jobs to finance new factories overseas. GM then declared bankruptcy and closed plants in the US, abandoning its obligations to the thousands of workers who had made it a global player.

Bankruptcy was basic to GM’s business plan, forcing union concessions, attracting billions in government bailout money and aiding the offshore transfer of GM assets. GM currently builds more than nine million vehicles a year in 35 countries. Shotwell writes,

“Many workers were deceived into thinking that buying America would save jobs. All it did was divert anger and make believe that foreign workers – both inside and outside US borders – were the enemy.

We bought American and the Corps bought whatever they wanted in Mexico, Europe, Asia and Latin America with profits earned by American workers. Foreign workers didn’t steal our jobs. The bosses exported them.”

Shotwell’s Live Bait and Ammo bulletins did more than expose these crimes, they urged workers to revolt against the theft of their wages, jobs, pensions, benefits and dignity.

UAW, Inc.

GM’s anti-worker “restructuring” relied on support from UAW officials, and Live Bait and Ammo called for rank-and-file rebellion against this treachery. Accused of dividing the union, Shotwell replies, “I didn’t say anything that they didn’t already know in their hearts.”

In UAW Incorporated: The Triumph of Capital (2010), Thomas Adams documents the transformation of the UAW from a membership-driven labor organization into a capital-driven, business organization.

Shotwell brings this betrayal to life. Live Bait and Ammo reveals how GM pumped millions of dollars into the pockets of UAW officials under the cover of “joint funds.” Fully one-third of UAW officials are financed this way. In return, UAW Inc. systematically dismembered and gutted the union, abandoning autoworkers, their families and communities.

The collusion between UAW Inc. and GM reached new heights in 2007, when GM shed its medical benefit obligations by promising to transfer billions of dollars (that had been earned by workers) to UAW Inc. in the form of an employee benefit trust fund (VEBA). Because the solvency of the VEBA depends on the continued profitability of the company, “the UAW has become a full partner in the exploitation of workers.”

You expect the boss to shaft you. You don’t expect your union to stab you in the back.

In the past, the UAW set the standard for raising workers’ conditions. Now it’s leading the race to lower the bottom. Shotwell can’t find enough insults for the traitors who transformed a once-proud fighting union into “the enforcement arm of management.”

“The UAW is a one-party state, hard-wired to undermine solidarity, corrupt good unionists, and defend the corporate agenda. If we mistake [it] for a legitimate union with workers interests at heart, we’ll be led to the slaughter like sheep who are sheered before they are butchered.”

Moving forward

Does this mean we are back to square one? Not by a long shot. Hard-won lessons become ammunition for more effective struggle. Shotwell concludes:

“There is no middle class and no lower class in America. There are only workers with decent jobs, and workers who don’t have decent jobs. Those who do hold decent jobs are only one catastrophic illness, one plant closing, or one indefinite layoff from destitution.

The mantle of middle-class status presumes a degree of security and upward mobility that does not exist. The notion of safety, draped like the boss’s arm around one’s shoulder, is based on the premise that hard work pays off and loyalty is rewarded.

The middle-class dream is as dead as the deer that I see spattered on the highway everyday…There is only a working class, and we – however special we may feel – all work in the same demoralized place, under the same relentless pressure to sacrifice our lives for the success of a godless corporation.”

Autoworkers Under the Gun offers many valuable lessons:

• that the siren song of “labor/management partnership” spells the death of genuine unionism

• that the only say workers get is finding more ways to deepen their exploitation

• that what’s good for management is death for workers

• that “helping the company compete” means putting your head in a noose

• that concessions kill jobs

• that companies profit by gutting their workforce

• that shared sacrifice is never shared

• that the promise of home ownership, 401K investments, medical care and old age security is a vanishing mirage

• that money is never lost – it only changes hands

• that predatory capitalism will steal everything you ever earn.

Now we know that bosses will scheme to put union bureaucrats in their pockets and make them tools of management. Now we know that self-serving union officials will betray their members and castrate their unions in exchange for company bribes.

Now we know that government, corporations and union heads collaborate to degrade the working class.

In every bulletin, Shotwell insists that the battleground is the shop floor, not the bargaining table; that we get only what we fight for; and that any goal short of victory for all is an injury to workers everywhere.

Show the boss who’s boss

I reserve the last words for Brother Shotwell:

“The sitdowners of ‘37 were not invested in the capitalist system like we are. They didn’t fight to preserve their investments. They fought for power – for the whole working class.”

“When our brothers and sisters are laid off, we should refuse as much overtime as possible. No more favors. No more rush jobs. Workers rule when they work to rule.”

“Work to rule is a method of slowing production by following every rule to the letter…Work to rule is an invocation for workers to govern collectively, to control the conditions of their labor…When workers work to rule, human rights take precedence over property rights… [w]hen workers work to rule, the bosses find out who really runs the plant, who keeps the machines humming, production flowing, and the money coming in.”

“We’ll get change when we break all the rules that keep us chained to the heart attack machine that cranks money out of poverty, illness and war. We’ll get change, real change, when workers lead the way.”

“The only real security is solidarity…If we fail to act collectively, we will be picked off separately. Solidarity is not an ideal; it’s a practical solution to an urgent need.”

This book will stoke the fire in your gut.

Read it and weep. Read it and revolt.

Read the inspiring story of how autoworkers fought to build the UAW in the 1930s: Striking Flint: Genora (Johnson) Dollinger Remembers the 1936-37 General Motors Sit-Down Strike

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- who has written 155 posts on SusanRosenthal.com – Socialism is the Best Medicine.


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4 Comments For This Post

  1. Dick Danjin Says:

    The problem with “work to the rule” in todays workplace in D3 plants is there are no rules.

  2. Gregg Shotwell Says:

    You’re right as usual, Danjin. The workplace is getting tougher and the union weaker. But like my old friend Mike Wittek used to say, “When the going gets tough, the tough take a break.” Besides, you know as well as I that WTR is just a code for sabotage and slow down. stay solid, shotwell

  3. Mary Heyens Says:

    “You expect the boss to shaft you. You don’t expect your union to stab you in the back.”

    Thank you Gregg Shotwell for your book, Autoworkers Under the Gun: A Shop-Floor View of the End of the American Dream. I am grateful to meet others with similar experiences who support each other. Your research and writing empowers me to fight for my rights and to share my story.

    I am a Skilled Tradeswoman with +10 years’ work experience and training. I worked + 6 years in the automotive industry before my hire in November 2004 with the City of Guelph and Union CUPE Local 241. From 2005-2007, I worked full-time as a Spare Garbage Truck Driver (Waste Packer Operator). I never missed a day of work and was a ‘role model’ employee proud to serve the residents of Guelph.

    About four months after my date of hire, I was subject to workplace sexual harassment and bullying, which escalated over time.

    My work crew was male-dominated; the ratio of men to women was 18:1. The only other woman who drove truck had a boyfriend who was one of the garbage truck drivers, and she bullied me severely. I was regularly bullied and sexually harassed by several co-workers.

    On July 3, 2007, I was sexually assaulted by a male co-worker, Ron Wisniewski. When I spoke up, it just made everything worse. The employer and union laughed in my face, and I was fired in October 2007. I later discovered that his brother-in-law and mother-in-law sat on Guelph City Council.

    The union never supported my grievances and rarely communicated with me. I had never worked in a unionized workplace, and was shocked that the union was just another ‘Old Boys Club’ that condoned bullying and sexual harassment of Skilled Tradeswomen.

    When I saw that the union was about to “nail me to the wall,” I went to the Guelph Mercury newspaper and they printed my story of workplace harassment and bullying. The union put one more woman on the City Garbage Trucks to save face.

    At least one other woman, a female co-worker, was sexually assaulted by the same man who assaulted me. When she tried to report this, the City and union got rid of her too. In 2011 she told me, “He (Ron Wisniewski) really scared me. I guess I should have pressed charges, but I have two relatives, my mother and my aunt who work for the City, so I can’t say anything.”

    In my experience, this union is corrupt. They make sure they hire their relatives (NEPOTISM) and groom the women to get-in-line and do as the men want, or they will lose their jobs. Four other City-employed women were hired at the same time I was, and within a couple of months began dating men who worked for the City. Those women moved up their career ladder quickly and remain employed to this day.

    I have been ‘black-listed’ by the city and the union and struggle to recover from PTSD. I remain unemployed on ODSP (Ontario Disability Support Program).

    Ron Wisniewski remains employed with full-status at the City of Guelph, enjoying $27.00 / hour + full benefits + perks.

    Every 3-6 months I meet another ex-city employee who was bullied out of their job at the City of Guelph.

    What’s the point of having a union if we don’t stand together, respect and protect one another?

    Mary Heyens, Guelph, Ontario, Canada. E: [email protected]

  4. Gregg Shotwell Says:

    Mary, stories like yours are too common. Many workers are afraid to come forward because the authorities, both company and union, are corrupt. Power respects power. When you are in a minority you learn quickly the limits of personal power. I’m glad to hear you haven’t lost your fighting spirit. We need people like you. For every one person who dares to confront there are ten who remained silent and thereby allowed the perps to continue their hostilities. While you may not have won a just settlement, it appears to me that you maintained your self-respect and that’s a master tool. Best to you, stay solid, Gregg Shotwell

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  1. Striking Flint: Genora (Johnson) Dollinger Remembers the 1936-37 General Motors Sit-Down Strike | SusanRosenthal.com - Solidarity is the Best Medicine Says:

    [...] read:  BOOK REVIEW: Autoworkers Under the Gun: A Shop-Floor View of the End of the American Dream, by Gregg Shotwell.

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