The Death Of NUMMI
|The Death Of NUMMI:
Auto’s Crisis Through the Lens of One Plant
By Barry Sheppard
DURING THE 1980-82 recession, U.S. automobile corporations were closing factories, reflecting growing international competition and overproduction. One of the plants closed was a large General Motors facility in the city of Fremont, California, part of the San Francisco Bay Area.
This factory was reopened in 1984, in a deal between Toyota and General Motors. They formed a new corporation, New United Motors Manufacturing, Inc. (NUMMI). Toyota held 70% of the company and GM the rest, with management largely from Toyota.
On March 31, 2010, NUMMI, the only West Coast automobile assembly plant, shut down, leaving 4,700 UAW members without jobs. This will have a cascading effect, beginning with 21,000 jobs in California’s parts supplier plants. NUMMI’s website estimates a total of 50,000 auto jobs across the country will be lost as a result of the plant closing, with some estimates higher.
The plant was set up as a separate corporation; although GM was partial owner UAW workers at NUMMI do not have the right to transfer to other GM plants. As for Toyota, Fremont was the only location where Toyota workers were in the union. Workers from UAW Local 2244 will have to get jobs in other industries, often with lower wages and worse conditions, when they are able finally to find work.
Peter Goodman, writing in the February 21 New York Times, reports that long-term unemployment, meaning over six months, has risen to its highest level since records were first compiled in 1948. Under the headline “Despite Signs of Recovery, Chronic Joblessness Rises,” he writes:
((QUOTE)) Economists fear that the nascent recovery will leave more people behind than in past recessions, failing to create jobs in sufficient numbers to absorb the record-setting ranks of the long-term unemployed. Call them the new poor: people long accustomed to the comforts of middle-class life who are now relying on public assistance for the first time in their lives – potentially for years to come. ((END QUOTE))
In mass media-speak, “middle class” means workers with better jobs with higher wages and benefits, often in unions, like the former NUMMI workers. Perhaps GM has learned an important lesson in setting up separate entities. GM officials claim that their new Brownstown, Michigan, battery-pack assembly plant for electric cars is operated under a subsidiary. Similarly, GM’s plans for an electric motor facility in Baltimore, MD will also employ new hires rather than laid-off GM workers.
Tim Higgins, Detroit Free Press writer noted in his March 13 article “GM Brownstown electric car workers may see lower wages,” the workers have fewer job classifications and more flexible work rules than at other GM plants, make about $12 an hour with few benefits.
When NUMMI was first formed, the company agreed to recognize the former United Automobile Workers Local 2244 from the old GM plant. Union contracts with NUMMI over the years were some of the best in the area. Although work on an assembly line is hard work – and many new hires find they can’t take it -- the wages and benefits, especially health care, made it an attractive place to work. Health care was with Kaiser Permanente, and was better than other plans, such as Blue Cross, in the Bay Area.
The work force was diverse, including African Americans, Latinos, Asians and other minorities. Many women were hired. [WERE WOMEN 10% OF THE WORK FORCE OR MORE?] In fact, white males were the minority.
When GM went bankrupt last year, part of its reorganization included shutting plants, including pulling out of NUMMI. Without a partner, Toyota made the decision to close.
Undoubtedly, Toyota chose to close NUMMI because it was the only union shop among all Toyota plants in the country. Toyota’s strategy has been to build its plants in the largely non-union South and keep the UAW out by providing the same or better wages as UAW members working at the Big Three, although without union job protection or some of the UAW’s benefits.
The NUMMI closing is another big blow to workers in California, who are experiencing an official unemployment rate of 12%. It is often said that California has been out ahead of the rest of the country, setting new trends in culture and lifestyle. Now California is once again the vanguard, this time in slashing social services. Although almost all states are in dire financial straights, California’s deficit is enormous. In spite of massive cutbacks to education and other social services, the deficit is back up to $20 billion, and even that will climb since it is based on a rosy projection of the economy.
How the UAW Became Weak
Before discussing the response of UAW Local 2244 leadership at NUMMI, it would be useful to look at what has happened in the UAW nationally for the past two plus decades. All national leadership belong to the Administration Caucus, which has controlled the union since the late 1940s. At the time of the Chrysler bailout (1979-81), the leadership accepted concessions as necessary to “save jobs” and preserve the union for another, better day.
Not a single job has been saved by these policies. In fact the concessions have accelerated. By 2007 contracts with the Big three established a permanent two-tier system, dividing production workers between new hires (often only with “temporary” status) and those already on the job. Wages for new hires were cut in half, from an industry level of $28 per hour to $14 per hour, with no hope of ever reaching the higher tier. Benefits and working conditions were also on the chopping block.
The 2009 bailout of General Motors and Chrysler was another opportunity for the companies to demand reopening of the contract. Under the agreement signed by the companies and the Obama administration, unionized auto workers had to become “competitive” with the nonunion sector. The companies and the UAW leadership then came up with a no-strike pledge until 2015, and bullied the membership into rubber stamping this concession.
Over the years there have been attempts to counter the concessions policy of the Administration Caucus. The broadest occurred when Jerry Tucker, assistant director in UAW Region 5, challenged this policy by mobilizing locals in work-to-rule campaign that won contracts the leadership did not believe possible. But instead of adopting Tucker’s strategy, they used their power to destroy the New Directions caucus and drive him from office.
My late companion, Caroline Lund, worked at NUMMI for 15 years before her death in 2006. When she hired into NUMMI there were two caucuses in the Local, the Administration Caucus and the People’s Caucus. Only one leader of the People’s Caucus, Richard Aguilar, was a member of New Directions nationally, as was Caroline. He had been elected Chairman of the Bargaining Committee, although the Administration Caucus was the majority in the leadership. In 1994 the company tried to cut health care, and he led a strike when the contract expired at midnight, against the wishes of the Administration Caucus. The night shift workers streamed out of the plant into the union hall across the street. In two hours management capitulated. Caroline worked closely with Richard in preparing the strike, although she was a rank-and-filer at the time. This was the only strike in NUMMI’s history.
In 1998 Caroline began to publish her own plant newsletter, “The Barking Dog,” as a way to provide information to coworkers since the Administration Caucus kept the workers in the dark. But it broadened out to defend workers against company attacks, and criticized the leadership when it failed to defend the membership. “The Barking Dog” had a press run of 1,000 but it was widely circulated within the plant.
Top management first tried to suppress “The Barking Dog” when it criticized some of the company’s anti-worker measures. But they were taken aback when they learned that U.S. labor law, won by the union movement’s struggles, protected such material.
The Local’s Administration Caucus leadership also attempted to suppress the newsletter when it criticized them. In fact, they threatened to sue Caroline for libel. However, they ran into a buzz saw because Caroline fought back by publicizing their threats and were forced to retreat. Partly as a result of this fight, the membership elected Caroline, who ran as an independent, to the executive committee as a Trustee against the candidates of both caucuses in 2000.
She continued to publish “The Barking Dog.” Its independent voice helped set the stage for the electoral defeat of the Administration Caucus in 2003. The Peoples Caucus broadened and Caroline found she was able to work with the new leadership.
She remained independent and “The Barking Dog” continued. One of the tasks Caroline set herself was to work with others on the Local union newsletter committee to revitalize it from the fluff it previously published to one that ran pro-worker articles.
When in 2005, the company again tried to attack health care and other benefits, the Local fought back. Demonstrations were organized in front of the plant and a big banner was spread on a bridge crossing a major freeway in the Bay Area, letting motorists know what management was up to. This was picked up by TV news. The company had long touted itself as labor-friendly, claiming that workers had a say under the “team” concept. Workers did have a say – when they pulled the cord shutting down the line. But management was sensitive to this publicity.
Both “The Barking Dog” and the Local newsletter talked up in the plant the need to be ready to strike. As the deadline for the expiration of the contract approached, a few thousand workers signed up for picket duty. At midnight Caroline and I were at the union hall, and there were still hundreds of workers signing up. The contract was extended hour by hour, as negotiations continued. Then it was announced that the company had capitulated, to the cheers of the workers.
But in the recent period, faced with an increasingly aggressive management and a national union leadership that preached concessions, the Local’s leadership lost its way. When the editor of the Local newsletter, Leticia Quesada, criticized in its pages alleged financial irregularities, they responded by shutting it down in May, 2009. A new election was called by the top leadership for the newsletter committee. To their consternation, Leticia was reelected as editor, so they kept the newsletter shut down.
In the midst of the crisis, when if anything there is a greater need for discussion, the leadership kept the ranks completely in the dark about the impending plant shutdown.
A Floundering Union
Toyota has offered each worker who remained on the job until March 31 a “retention bonus.” These range from $20,000 to $70,000 for a very few. The workers viewed this as severance pay. As NUMMI workers sought to clarify their situation, they found the leadership without answers on such important questions as what will happen to their pensions, medical coverage or other benefits. Workers also have expressed on TV anger about why GM is paying nothing. I’ve been told by a Local leader that pensions would probably be taken over by the government (and slashed). Everyone expects their health plan to expire.
At a recent union meeting, furious members shouted down the chairman of the bargaining committee. A worker filmed on his phone the fury of a near riot that shut the meeting down.
Meanwhile, Leticia Quesada, after attempting the raise the issue with the Local and International to no avail, has brought her charges that the top leaders are allegedly are lining their pockets with union funds before the Local itself shuts down, before the Department of Labor. As a result, the DOL subpoenaed the Local’s books.
What did the leadership, both locally and nationally, put forward as a strategy to keep the plant open? They organized a “boycott Toyota” campaign! They even got the AFL-CIO to endorse it, and held a demonstration in front of the Japanese Embassy in Washington, DC.
But appealing to a crude American nationalism to pressure the company to keep the plant open was utterly ineffective, indeed, ridiculous. It has also provoked anger among NUMMI workers who wonder why GM was left off the hook. There is the suspicion that the Local leadership is kowtowing to the national Administration Caucus, which has maintained a cozy relationship to GM.
Furthermore, a “boycott Toyota” campaign did not sit well with the thousands of nonunion U.S. auto workers in Toyota’s plants. Any strategy to save the plant would also have had to keep in mind the need to organize Toyota’s other autoworkers.
What’s happening to UAW Local 2244 unfortunately provides a glimpse of the labor movement nationally. At a time of economic crisis, the official leadership continues to retreat. The solidarity that has existed among generations of auto workers has been threatened by devastating concessions. Through the lens of looking at the shuttering of the NUMMI plant we can see how deep the crisis has become for auto workers and the labor movement.
Although “The Barking Dog” is no longer produced, there are still voices in opposition to plant closures and more concessions. They are found on autoworker websites today (Soldiers of Solidarity, Factory Rat and Autoworkers Caravan, but there are undoubtedly others). Perhaps the loudest voices were those of the Ford workers, who turned down their no strike agreement by 83%, a feat no one thought possible!
Barry Sheppard has published the first volume of a political memoir about his experiences in the leadership of the SWP, from which he was purged in 1988. Before his retirement he worked in a steel mill, a refinery and in a steam-power plant connected to United Airlines’ maintenance base. He is a member of Solidarity in the Bay Area.
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