There was a feeling of inevitability about the United Automobile Workers' decision to strike General Motors plants across the country yesterday, and it wasn't just because of the sixty-minute contracts they've been extending an hour at a time for the past week and a half, ever since the UAW settled on GM as the lead company in the latest round of contract negotiations. If this is the first time the UAW has called a national strike against GM in nearly thirty years, it is because the cycle of concessionary bargaining, mass buyouts and Chapter 11 busts that have wracked the auto industry for decades have come with increasing frequency in recent years. All this has made 2007 a defining moment for the union that to many has epitomized the declining fortunes of the postwar labor movement.
It is defining because the motivating factors behind Monday's walkout--job security guarantees and the much-debated healthcare trust that GM is essentially expecting the union to bankroll--may well determine the union's fate in Detroit once and for all, and are sure to have ramifications in other sectors of the industrial economy as well.
With the UAW's GM workforce now at one-fifth of 1990 levels, overall employment numbers in the industry declining slowly but steadily since 2000 and the only growth taking place in nonunion plants in the Southeast, it's hard to disagree with UAW president Ron Gettelfinger's assertion  that "there comes a point in time when you have to draw a line the sand." When GM predictably tried to turn the jobs issue against the union in a terse statement that expressed disappointment in the UAW for striking during "bargaining [that] involves complex, difficult issues that affect the job security of our US work force," the waves of downsizing that have swept the industry these last years made it sound a bit like the corporate giant wants to have its cake and eat it, too.
Perhaps more significant, however, is the ongoing discussion over the creation of a voluntary employee benefit association, or VEBA, to assume GM's $55 billion liability in healthcare benefits. The VEBA proposal--which GM has been pushing hard and the UAW leadership has seemed willing consider, much to the consternation of dissidents  within the union--is technically separate from the contract negotiations and thus not a direct cause of the strike. That said, there is little doubt that the company's efforts to discharge its benefit obligations onto a poorly funded trust vulnerable to market fluctuations that the union will have to underwrite to a significant degree has a great deal to do with the frustration now being expressed at union halls and on picket lines.
The benefit packages negotiated by the UAW in the middle decades of the last century were the gold standards of postwar unionism, and their gradual erosion and now imminent death-by-VEBA is as clear an indication as any of why American workers, even those lucky enough to still belong to a union, are in desperate need of healthcare and pension reform. If the Big Three automakers succeed in shrugging off their benefit obligations, there is little doubt that more large employers, especially those in other core industries, will follow suit. If the UAW is unable to protect the generous benefits its members currently enjoy, no private-sector union can feel all that safe.
The UAW's bargaining position has been so weakened by recent industry trends and its own previous poor strategic decisions that the outlook for the strike is hardly good. Considering Gettelfinger and his negotiators have already signaled their willingness to accept GM's VEBA proposal, the high ground may have already been lost. But if nothing else, the strike is a courageous stand by a union that remains a pacesetter, even as its own future will remain in doubt until it can finally crack the nonunion plants operated by companies like Toyota and Honda in Tennessee, Alabama and elsewhere outside the UAW's traditional strongholds.
And for the rest of us, it's another sign of why we need comprehensive, worker-friendly, universal healthcare reform. Let no Democratic presidential candidate walk the pickets in the coming days without a serious commitment to a national healthcare plan even a UAW member could love.