Lessons of the GM strike; about the Puerto Rican general strike; and striking Russian miners blockade railroads

. The following three articles are from Detroit Workers Voice #20, August 10, 1998, published by the Detroit Marxist-Leninist Study Group..


What can be learned from the GM strike?

. The 54-day strike by GM workers was welcomed by workers everywhere who are fed up with the job cutting and productivity drives of the capitalist employers. The fact that a business giant like GM was shut down was an inspiring sight. Likewise was the solidarity of GM workers in Canada. GM lost billions of dollars, refuting all the talk about strikes being outdated.

. One would expect that the result of such a strike would be a victory for the workers, and the UAW bureaucrats claim this was the result. But was it? The settlement allows GM to continue to whittle down the workforce and institute heavier workloads. GM merely had to agree to not completely close or sell a couple of plants until the end of next year. As well, GM threatened to get many local strikes banned as "illegal" during this strike and has served notice it will press ahead on this in the future. Thus, the groundwork for future skirmishes has been laid. But if the workers are to have a fighting chance, they will need to develop a militant alternative to the stand of the UAW officials.

The deal between GM and the UAW bureaucrats

. The strike began when GM moved dies for stamping auto parts from the Flint Stamping Plant.A few days after the strike began, GM offered to return the dies to the plant if and when UAW officials agreed to productivity measures. In the strike settlement GM agreed to continue investing in the plant but got the UAW bureaucrats to agree to a 15% increase in productivity by raising production quotas and reducing the workforce by 500 workers. As well, GM agreed not to close or sell the Delphi Automotive System parts plants in Flint and Dayton, Ohio until December, 1999 in return for a temporary no strike pledge. An analysis by a member of the financial sharks at Morgan Stanley Dean Witter says that "the no-strike elements of the pact could help GM carry off some fairly substantial restructuring" that would help the company carry out the elimination of 50,000 jobs without fear of union retaliation. Indeed, it is reported that some 800 jobs will be cut at the Delphi East plant in Flint as part of the deal. Nor will the settlement stop GM from going ahead with its planned closing of the Buick City assembly plant in Flint.

GM outsources its whole Delphi division

. Meanwhile, only a week after the strike settlement, GM announced it would turn all its Delphi parts plants into a separate company that must compete for GM's business against lower-wage parts plants. In this way, Delphi workers are going to face heavy pressure for further concessions.200,000 present GM workers worldwide will wind up under this new company by the time its separation process is completed at the end of next year. The new company will negotiate a separate national contract when the present agreement expires in September 1999. In effect, GM has in one stroke outsourced its entire auto parts production operations.

. The UAW bureaucrats had portrayed the settlement as opposing the selling off of plants. But when it was announced that 200,000 jobs would be outsourced, they confined themselves to mumbling a few words about how they would allegedly protect the conditions of the workers going into the new company. Thus, they are going along with the plan to spin-off the new company, a move everyone knows will make it easier for GM to close plants outright and drive the workers' conditions down. The UAW leaders pretend the settlement was a great triumph, pointing out that besides the temporary reprieve for a couple of plants, workers would get some holiday pay they would have gotten had they not been idled by the strike. But even this small crumb won't cost GM anything as it is funded from the joint UAW-GM job-training funds. And overall, the settlement has paved the way for a renewed assault on the workers' livelihoods.

UAW leaders bow down to threats to ban the strike

. The miserable strike settlement was all the more disgraceful because the strike itself was very effective. GM's North American operations were basically shut down and there was no immediate threat of bringing in scabs. GM's profits took a stiff hit and the appearance of new vehicle lines was threatened. Workers spirits were strong and even the UAW leaders themselves were talking about continuing the strike through Labor Day and longer.

. But when GM went to an arbitrator to have the strikes declared "illegal," the UAW leadership caved in to the pressure to end the struggle. The UAW leaders had used a contract provision permitting local strikes over health and safety issues to launch this strike and several others in the past. GM told the arbitrator this was just a pretense since the strike was really over GM's decision to remove work from the Flint stamping plant and other "restructuring" and that the contract prohibited strikes over such issues. As soon as GM took the issue to an arbitrator, the UAW officials announced they would obey the arbitrator's decision. This was a clear signal that they were not willing to continue the strike if it meant risking possible legal sanctions. Just before the arbitrator's decision was about to be made, the strike was abandoned in favor of the rotten settlement. GM had challenged the UAW's use of this form of local strikes and the UAW backed down.

. While the UAW leaders groan about anti-worker laws, they bow down before them. The government and the capitalists have collaborated to create a web of legal obstacles to derail the workers' struggles. When confronted by such obstacles, the UAW hierarchy tosses away the strike weapon. But if the workers' struggle is confined to what the fat cats and their anti-worker laws allow, the workers will continue to be beaten down. Of course, the UAW bureaucrats may call more strikes in the future. But workers must be prepared to wage a struggle that goes beyond what the UAW leadership wants.

Use the new struggles to organize on a new basis

. Despite the stand of the UAW leaders, the GM strike represents part of a new wave of worker activity against the capitalist offensive. The corporate giants and their media mouthpieces assure us the class struggle is a relic of the past. But as capitalism has gone into crisis in Asia and workers everywhere are being squeezed, a new wave of the workers' movement is beginning to revive both here and abroad. Just last month a general strike rocked Puerto Rico. A massive general strike shut down Denmark earlier this year, while today the South Korean workers are continuing to wage a large-scale struggle against soaring unemployment. A couple of months ago the Indonesian masses toppled the fascist Suharto when he imposed IMF austerity measures on them.

. The eruptions of struggle show the contrast between the potential might of the workers and the treacherous policy of the timid trade union officials like the UAW leaders. If the workers are to unleash their potential and not be ground down by the corporations, much hard work lies ahead.Workers are going to have to get organized on a new basis which frees them from the constraints of the trade union bureaucracy and allows the rank-and-file to take matters into their own hands.<>

General strike in Puerto Rico

. On July 7-8, several hundred thousand workers in Puerto Rico participated in a general strike.They were protesting the planned privatization of the Puerto Rican Telephone company to a consortium headed by the U.S. monopoly, GTE, and including the Puerto Rican bank, Banco Popular. Puerto Rican governor Rossello has also been selling off public hospitals and wants to undermine the public education system with a school voucher system. The privatization of the phone company meant the loss of thousands of jobs. And given the long history of U.S.imperialist domination of Puerto Rico, the sale to a U.S. company was considered an additional outrage.

. The general strike was the high point of a struggle that began in mid- June when telephone workers went on strike against Rossello's plans. The workers set up militant picket lines at phone company facilities, defying court injunctions against them and beating back police attacks. A few days later, electrical and water plant workers began a three-day solidarity strike. Health services workers also held work stoppages. There was widespread sabotage of telephone lines and the automated teller machines of Banco Popular as well as a boycott of the bank.

. The struggle escalated into the general strike organized by a coalition of 60 unions and other groups. The strike shut down all the offices of the phone company and Banco Popular as well as the international airport, shopping areas, transport and other public services. Workers chanted "Struggle yes, surrender no" and "Puerto Rico is not for sale."

. Unfortunately, a powerful section of the Puerto Rican trade union bureaucrats was as afraid of the escalating struggle as the Puerto Rican authorities. Right after the general strike the picket lines shrunk. The main demand was changed to simply protection from retribution against those who participated in the strike. At the end of July, the bureaucrats made a back-room deal with the phone company. They failed to even get amnesty for workers accused of legal violations during the strike. Meanwhile, they pledged union cooperation in promoting the efficient operation of the company. This deal was railroaded through. At an assembly called by one of the two telephone unions, all dissident opinion was suppressed. Some workers declared their disgust with this and planned their own pickets to denounce the sellout.

. Rossello, with the help of a section of sellout trade union leaders, went ahead with the sale to GTE/Banco Popular. But the workers anger will not soon go away. They have had seen for themselves what a powerful force they are when they unite in militant struggle.<>

Striking miners block Russian railroads

. Millions of Russian workers are owed billions of rubles in back wages. Workers often go without pay for months on end. The Russian coal miners have had enough. In several regions during July, they struck en masse, blocked railroad tracks, and engaged in protests. In the Kuzbass region of the Ural mountains, miners in Chelyabinsk, Yurga, Anzhero-Sudzhensky and elsewhere have blockaded sections of the Trans-Siberian railroad. Miners in the island of Sakhalin in the Russian Far East have blocked trains carrying fuel to power stations, resulting in major power blackouts.

. These protests are part of an ongoing movement. Previously, for two weeks in May, miners throughout Russia had also blocked parts of the Trans- Siberian railroad, forcing trains to make huge detours. And there is likely to be a new round of struggle later in the year.

The strikers have widespread support, and many workers have engaged in support actions.Textile workers, teachers, railroad workers, and even technical workers have taken part.

The fruit of free-market reforms

. When Russian President Boris Yeltsin instituted radical free-market reforms in 1992, the Russian people were promised a new era of prosperity. Instead the economy shrunk dramatically.Some sources even claim that it is now no larger than that of Spain, which has only one-fourth the population of Russia. Last year the Russian government boasted that the years of decline were over, as the economy didn't shrink, even if it didn't really grow either. But this balloon was punctured as the Asian economic crisis and the drop in world oil prices were a shock to the Russian economy. And then there was the deep Russian financial crisis of May this year. The value of Russian stocks and bonds fell like a stone.

. But what is misery to some is pure gold for others. A small section of Russian capitalists and nouveau riche have been making out like bandits during the 90s, importing luxury goods while basic production crashes in Russia. Financial speculation provides fast bucks for those with connections. Meanwhile there is mass homelessness; workers are going unpaid; scientists and technical workers are fleeing abroad; insecure families are afraid to have children; TB and other diseases are skyrocketing; and the Russian population has actually dropped. Social services such as schools, medical care, child care, and pensions have been slashed, and the July 16 bailout agreement with the IMF calls for further slashing.

What is to be done?

. Yeltsin's popularity has plummeted. The miners were once the most active workers in demanding the fall of the old system, and their leaders backed Yeltsin. Now they are demanding Yeltsin's resignation.

. More strikes and rail blockades are due later this year. But there are a lot of questions about what to do. The free-market liberals who promised utopia if only there was privatization are being discredited. But the official opposition on the left is dominated by carry-overs from the old Stalinist state-capitalist system which falsely called itself "communist". This system had been in crisis for decades, economically stagnant and politically repressive. Today the so-called "communists" of the Russian opposition are divided into those who simply want a slower pace of free-market reforms and those who want to preserve major elements of the old system.

For a revolutionary Marxism opposed to the state-capitalist fraud

. A real workers' opposition in Russia would have to denounce both the old state-capitalist system and the Yeltsin free-market reforms (and steer clear of Trotskyism, which isn't that different from Stalinism). There are only a few reports of worker activists who take this stand. So at present this is a small trend at best, with very unclear ideas. But this is the only direction that points to the future. If the workers are to have a perspective for their struggles, they must aim at something new, not a repetition of the past.

. It is imperative that we support our class brothers and sisters in Russia. This is especially so as the Yeltsin government is preparing for repression against the mass movement and anti-Yeltsin newspapers. But we must also take part in the struggle to develop a truly Marxist theory. This is the anti-revisionist task taken up by the Communist Voice Organization. We must denounce the blood-sucking free-market capitalism of the West and its world agencies such as the IMF. But we must also denounce state-capitalist regimes like those in China and Cuba as false "communism" and shed no tears for the fall of the old Stalinist regimes in Russia and Eastern Europe. We must support the masses of workers in these countries, not the old bureaucracies. A new, truly communist workers movement will not rise up from the remnants of the tired old "revisionist" parties. Whether here or in Russia, it will come only from the midst of rank-and-file workers and revolutionary activists.<>

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