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(en) US, WORKERS SOLIDARITY, Soldiers of Solidarity: up from below, rank and filers struggle for a future By C. Alexander

Date Fri, 16 Jun 2006 18:39:16 +0300


On October 8, 2005, Delphi Corporation filed for business
reorganization under chapter 11 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code, the
end being: the elimination or downsizing of 25 of it’s 45 U.S.
plants - resulting in an estimated 20,000 job losses (2/3’s of
it’s total U.S. labor force); a 60% slashing of wages, dropping
pay to an estimated $9.50 an hour for it’s remaining production
workers; increasing the healthcare costs it’s workforce must pay
from 7 to 27 percent; and the scrapping of worker programs such as
the “Jobs Banks” which provides workers with schooling
and alternative work assignments when laid-off.

The following month during a November 2nd speech to union
leaders, international United Auto Worker (UAW) president Ron
Gettelfinger, called for a "work to rule" in which auto workers would
do the bare minimum of labor required of them stating, "We should
not do one thing more than what is required". Nearing a month since
Delphi announced its intent, and as fear and frustration mounted
among workers, Gettelfinger was forced to respond and attempt to
exhibit some oppositional spine.

Within days, militants from the auto industry gave meaning to
Gettelfinger’s words. In a non-UAW sanctioned meeting auto
workers said they would organize to fight Delphi. Using
Gettelfinger’s statement as justification, the militants have
embarked on a campaign to build a grassroots fighting movement
whose aim is to engage and prepare fellow rank and filers for an
unfolding struggle to resist corporate attacks – both within the
auto industry and on the broader working classes.
Background:
Delphi

Delphi is the largest auto parts supplier in the U.S. and is a division
of General Motors that was “spun off” in 1999. Initially
heralded by the business community as a bold and inventive
maneuver that would allow for more flexibility of both companies,
Delphi was never made truly independent of GM. It was a way for
GM to get under-performing assets off of their books while still
preserving direct control of Delphi by existing as the primary buyer
of Delphi’s inventory.

An article in Business Week from November 2005 entitled, Spin
Off’s That Wont Go Away, stated, “GM… lumbered them
(Delphi) with huge labor costs while extracting promises from them
to cut their prices”. Delphi was an experiment designed for
bankruptcy. The results would allow Delphi, and GM, to argue that
the crisis in the auto industry results from healthcare and wage
payouts to it’s workers and retiree’s. Bankruptcy would
allow Delphi to seek the elimination of union contracts and overhaul
it’s labor force through layoffs and plant closures. This tactic
corresponds with a general leveling of wages and benefits by the
trans-national corporations, the logic of which will make U.S. labor
sectors “competitive”. Delphi’s move may be the new
pace setter for a speed up in economic and social decline.

SOS

Soldiers of Solidarity (SOS) was formed Dec. 4th 2005 in Bay City,
Michigan. Previous to this founding, a series of popular meetings
had been organized in an attempt to raise consciousness, solidify a
base, and promote the idea of resistance to a) specifically,
Delphi’s restructuring bankruptcy that entails plant closures and
deep cuts in pensions and wages, and b) generally, the broader
restructuring that the US auto industry is hoping to initiate.

The meetings varied in attendance. The first meetings numbered 60
to 70 soon growing to 300+ within a month - the Flint, Michigan
meeting being the largest in numbers and participation from the
floor. Other meetings were organized in Indiana, Wisconsin and
New York. Based on directly democratic principles, these meetings
had loose agendas that were voted on by the attendees before
meetings proceeded. This allowed workers the ability to raise issues,
promote upcoming actions and give general updates. What was
important is that these forums created a space for people to speak
their minds and talk about their frustrations, whether over Delphi or
the UAW’s failure to layout any plan of defense. These meetings
allowed for face to face contact and were free of officials, although
there has always been standing invitations to UAW leaders to come
and participate “as equals”. In addition, rank and filers were
asked to consider joining the SOS steering committee to participate
in debate and action planning.

Although adopting Gettelfinger’s call for a “work to
rule” campaign, the S.O.S. is an autonomous initiative coming
directly from the rank and file. It has come into existence because of
the disconnect between UAW leaders and their base – the
workers in the plants. Workers feel that the union has done little to
nothing - there has been no official UAW policy of implementing
“Work to Rule” (work to rule is a “legal” slowdown
in which workers do only the minimum of what is expected of them
according to union contract. A mass practice of this tactic results in
the liquidation of stocked products, making a future strike that much
more disruptive. It also allows workers to build solidarity, both within
the plant, and simultaneously on an industry wide basis through
coordination and back each other up when the manager and bosses
start hassling workers).

Many rank and filers see the union leadership as “AWOL”
having failed to even discuss the Delphi situation with union
members. This said, S.O.S. has not positioned itself as an alternative
to the UAW. Many of the militants in S.O.S. identify with their
union’s past and consider themselves union loyalists.

Initially, militants sought to down play their opposition to the UAW
bureaucracy. Gregg Shotwell, an influential S.O.S. rank and filer and
Delphi worker from Coopersville, Michigan, early on took the
position that “The (UAW) has it’s purpose at the bargaining
table, but we have our purpose at the shop floor. We can effect the
company more than the International union can, The International
can call a strike in the next six months, but we can put economic
hardship on Delphi and GM right now.” This position creates an
ambiguous relationship between S.O.S. and the UAW. While the
militants are frustrated with the lack of on-the-ground union
leadership, there is a simultaneous desire to see the union adopt a
fighting character and break with years of “partnership” with
the auto corporations. A website that has fast become a leading
resource and voice within the rank and file movement is Future of
the Union. It outlines the following in a document, “We are a
movement for serious and immediate change in our union…Those
who call us radicals fail to understand the rapid decline of union
membership in the United States is a direct effect of business
unionism and corporate unions…We believe there must be a new
direction in the UAW and how it operates…We stand against union
management cooperation and their joint activities programs”
(from About Future of the Union).
Then and Now: remembering the Flint Sit Down Strike
It is of relevance to stress that the S.O.S. movement consistently
recalls the efforts of the Flint Sit-down Strike of 1936-37 in which a
sector of the auto workers occupied the plants and shut GM down. A
dynamic event, the strike’s life and organization contains too
many details to map out in this article. But a brief sketch is
important. The strike 1) galvanized workers locally and on a national
scale. Regular strikes emerged in several Indiana, Michigan, Ohio,
and Wisconsin cities where GM had plants, 2) it reintroduced shop
floor direct action as a weapon, 3) was controlled directly by the
workers and their strike committees, 4) confronted a conservative
union authority who had rejected confrontation with GM, 5)
eventually won reforms that improved working conditions, and 6)
the strike built the image of the UAW as fighting union, forcing the
auto industry as a whole to the bargaining table.

For radicals, the Strike proved that independent action against
officialdom, the boss class and the State was still possible. The
Sit-downers and their outside support networks organized every
detail of their struggle, from strike defense to feeding themselves.
The experience was one of the class relying on itself, for itself. In the
current period, these lessons are far from obsolete. While conditions
have changed, the Sit-down Strike is a powerful reminder of a time
when workers fought and won.
SOS Action and Organizing
SOS, while growing in size, remains a minority movement within
the auto workers. The effects of an authoritarian and hierarchical
social order, combined with several decades of relative economic
stability, have taken it’s toll on people – in a society where
“leaders”, bureaucrats, and politicians have managed
peoples affairs down to the micro level, the how’s and why’s
of organizing an effective fight is not immediately present. Cynicism
towards struggle is more prevalent than the spirit of resistance.
Organizers and militants are facing an uphill battle. The stake’s
may be apparent to some, but many other workers are taking a
“wait and see” approach.

Nonetheless, this new movement points to positive developments
amongst the rank and file. UAW members have stated that they
rarely see these numbers in one meeting, let alone a meeting that
has not been sanctioned by the UAW leadership at Solidarity House.

There have also been offshoots of SOS, basically, local organizing
branches. Between actions and larger meetings, these locals provide
a space for ongoing dialogue between workers. The meetings usually
happen in restaurants that have shown support to the militants.

During periods of stability, conservative perspectives take hold. In
periods of crisis, different forms of thinking and practice emerge. I
would say that SOS embodies new conclusions. Many of the workers
are facing job liquidation. They understand the outcome of this and
it has become clear that the corporations are the opposition, and that
their own unions have been complicit. This has opened up space for
a range of politics to emerge and get a hearing.

A combination of the urgency of the struggle and the
ultra-democratic principles of SOS, has allowed for the development
of co-operative relations between those who would consider
themselves rank and file trade union reformers (and from the
working class sector of the Democratic Party) and those who have a
more “Left” bent to their politics including a radical
syndicalist current. Notable here are the Kokomo, Indiana organizers
some of whom identify as Wobs (IWW) while still carrying
membership in the UAW. These organizers also play a large role in
managing the Future of the Union website.

Also of important here is that SOS is independent and organizing
“horizontally at the… point of production” (Gregg Shotwell,
Live Bait and Ammo #57). Although it is primarily a movement to
defend auto workers against deep cuts and layoffs, SOS has made it
clear that they see their struggle tied up in the broader struggles of
the working classes. Many cities that have been historically
dependent on auto have been in a period of decline for decades. SOS
is trying to raise the issue that this struggle is far beyond auto jobs,
but is instead about the quality of life for their communities and for
future generations. Flint and Detroit, once the car capitals of North
America, are faced with high unemployment and crime rates,
crumbling infrastructure, and massive financial debt. These cities
provide a glimpse of what lays in store for much of the
Midwest’s manufacturing centers. SOS is acutely aware of this.
Increasing the Pressure – From the Shop Floor to the Streets
Outside of the rank and file meeting, SOS has spearheaded two
events. The first was mobilizing for a picket at the International Auto
Show which is an annual event held in Motor City, Detroit. The
second was a protest in Flint which initially had local UAW backing
but who pulled out the night before in effect sabotaging the event.
Both of these were met with mixed results.

The first event had a total participation between 500 and 700. And
was attended by UAW members, Canadian Auto Workers, and
various Left groups who are active in the Detroit area and have an
orientation towards labor. The object of the protest was to disrupt
auto’s annual gala. While new car designs would be unveiled,
auto workers would be out in the streets drawing attention to the
fight to save their jobs. the auto show also draws out the
international media. SOS organizers had hoped to take advantage of
this fact and project their struggle around the world. The smaller
numbers definitely had an impact on the protest , and the media
were carted in through the back entrance essentially missing the
protest. Still, for SOS, it helped bring organizers together, create a
camaraderie, and on a local level increase their visibility.

The second event was a protest held in Flint. The protest was
intended to draw attention to new plant closures, and SOS organizers
had managed to get UAW Local 651 Delphi Flint East on board.
Organizers had taken out newspaper advertisements, contacted local
Delphi retirees, and had even got a marching band to attend the rally
– to play New Orleans style deaths march music to highlight the
mood of the event. However, the night before the event, Local 651
president Russ Reynolds pulled official UAW support out and urged
people not to attend. Citing weather conditions, Reynolds in essence
sabotaged the rally. There had been a snow storm that night but
surprisingly no other establishment or school was shut down. Also,
the later half of the rally was to be held in the Locals hall where
people would have been safe and dry.

The build up to the event was often shaky itself with threats by the
Local’s leaders to bar SOS members from attending. With
accusations of “anti union” or “Reds”, UAW officials
are looking to discredit rank and file dissidents.

Still, SOS militants showed up and rallied. Like the previous auto
show rally, the Flint experience helped to cement relationships and
increased SOS’s reputation as a determined movement.
Risks for SOS
An important question of SOS is of where it sees itself going. The
difficult task for SOS, especially if the struggle deepens, is to remain
independent politically and committed to mass, popular organizing at
the grassroots. SOS must resist the turn towards electoralism –
union and beyond. Attempts to turn the SOS into a pressure group
have to be fought off, and key organizers must make a personal
commitment to remaining amongst the base at the shop floor level.

Another risk is personal attacks being leveled at militants. The
bureaucracy and corporations, attempting to maintain control, will
work to undermine dissidents. Already, SOS and some of it’s
key organizers are being blamed by the media for creating an
environment that has caused doubts at Toyota regarding their recent
plans of building a plant in southeastern Michigan. According to the
Detroit Free Press, concerns “about the UAW -- and especially
about a splinter group that has bucked both the union and corporate
leaderships -- may hurt economic prospects by turning Toyota away
from Michigan. Citing demonstrations and calls for grassroots action
against UAW leaders by the dissident workers, which call
themselves Soldiers of Solidarity (SoS)…” Toyota is
considering a back out of it’s plans. In a region that is going
through an economic downturn, the idea that the SOS is the cause
for scaring off potential jobs could be devastating to the movement
by driving a wedge between it and potential allies. SOS has to
counter this propaganda.

Other dangers relate to struggle in isolation. The Transport Workers
Union strike in New York during December of 2005 was a highly
visible struggle. The strike was immediately felt by the city given that
NYC is very dependent on mass transport for it’s basic
functioning. Defying the State and it’s own international, TWU
struck and through their action may have stopped, for the time
being, cuts in their health benefits and pensions. However, a strike
by auto workers could share the same fate as that of recent airline
struggles - notably, the AMFA strike. If links are not made between
industries and sectors of the public, we could see some important
and dynamic fights happening, but limited to local areas, they could
struggle on without greater support. This would mean an end for any
strike. The only hope for a protracted strike would involve building a
solidarity movement that acts together and responds to the different
sectors needs - in other words, building for a mass strike that could
level massive disruption to the State, Corporations, and economy.
There is no guarantee that such a strike would halt this spiral
downwards, but it could prevent a one-sided loss on the part of
working people.
Considerations for Radical Anti-authoritarians and Class Struggle
Anarchists
An important task for us is the figuring out of forms of intervention
and aiding in the development of a solidarity movement. With
participation we should argue for both defending and building on
SOS’s already existing directly democratic and radical forms of
organization. Taking the lead from these militants, we need to
expand on the following: concepts of horizontal organizing as
opposed to top-down directives; direct action as opposed to reliance
on negotiations made by the bureaucracy; and movement towards a
mass strike across society. If the struggle continues and sharpens,
remains outside of and independent of Solidarity House, and grows,
then this situation could touch thousands across the US and
internationally.

However, in our efforts we need to be able to “bring”
something to the table. For those of us not in the plants we can start
by organizing sectors who may not be immediately orienting towards
this movement. We need to establish solidarity groups and initiate
campaigns that engage a broader stratum of people laying out how
the Auto industries restructuring plans are part of a broader capitalist
offensive against the working classes and poor. The success of the
SOS struggle is tied up in the ability of our class to rally to it. This
means popularizing the struggle and transforming it from an isolated
movement to one that is identified and supported in other labor
sectors and in communities.
C. Alexander is a revolutionary anarchist and anti-fascist residing in
Michigan. He was a founding member of the recently disbanded,
F.R.A.C. (Federation of Revolutionary Anarchist Collectives –
Great Lakes). He currently works in the healthcare industry.


From the forthcoming issue of WORKERS SOLIDARITY,
publication of the
anarchosyndicalist Workers Solidarity Alliance (WSA) 339 Lafayette
Street #202, NY NY 10012. mailto:wsany@hotmail.com
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