David Bacon Stories & Photographs
General Motors -- A Political Strike Confronts the Global Economy
by David Bacon

SAN FRANCISCO, CA (7/26/98) -- Ending the strike of two auto parts plants near Detroit -- a process which used to take just a few days -- has instead lasted weeks. But delay and stubborn conflict is not the most unique factor marking this strike. It's the fact that General Motors has accomplished what generations of leftwing activists in the factories were never able to achieve. The company has provoked a political strike.

The conflict in Detroit is not directed against a government. In that way, it's still not the same as the political strikes now gripping South Korea, Russia, or even Puerto Rico. But this conflict is political nonetheless. GM strikers have been forced to confront the decision-making process governing the world economy -- determining where investment flows, which plants grow and which ones die.

The strike shows the shape of conflicts to come. Pushed by their employers, U.S. workers are slowly but surely joining labor movements abroad, who are also shoved against the wall by the global economic system.

GM began by reneging on a commitment to the local union at the Flint Metal Center near Detroit, whose huge presses stamp out body parts for almost all the company's vehicles. Three years ago, GM management offered to trade a work practice, one which has made life on the line a little more human, for new investment which would guarantee the factory's future.

For decades, workers at Flint have worked at a manic pace through breaks and meals, so they could get off work a few minutes early when their production quota was filled. GM wanted workers to stay a full eight hours on the line.

In return, the company promised, it would bring new machinery into the plant, making it as productive as its newest factories in Mexico and Brazil. But despite its promise, new investment never materialized. Eventually the workers walked out to force the issue. When they stopped producing parts, two dozen other plants that depended on them were forced to halt production as well.

The strike started as a fight over jobs. The union at the Flint Metal Center knows well that without new investment, production will gradually be transferred to those plants where the company has installed new machinery. Falling production means disappearing jobs.

But in order to protect those jobs, workers had to challenge GM's strategy for corporate investment. GM has chosen to gradually abandon its U.S. factories, and concentrate on building new facilities elsewhere. A week after the strike started in Flint, a leaked company document detailed corporate plans to increase production in Mexico from 300,000 to 600,000 vehicles by 2006. GM's Delphi parts division, whose Delphi East plant struck along with the Flint Metal Center, is already Mexico's largest private employer, with 72,000 employees.

According to University of California Professor Harley Shaiken, "the productivity of workers in Mexican plants is on a par with plants in the U.S. Investors get first-world rates of productivity, and a workforce with a third-world standard of living."

While 150,000 U.S., Canadian and Mexican workers have been idled by the strike, they have generally viewed the cause as their own. Even in Mexico, where wages are a tenth those in Detroit, workers are told the company can find a cheaper place to build the next factory. GM's investment priorities are the central problem workers face in every plant. If the union wins in Flint, it will be easier for them to face the same dilemma.

The strikers don't propose to prohibit GM investment in Mexico or other countries. They're not protectionists. They simply demand that the company invest enough in the U.S. to maintain the existing level of production, and a comparable level of technology.

But that simple demand has made the strike political, and very difficult to settle. GM will not have its workers participate in decisions over investment strategy -- to the company, this is a sacred right bequeathed by capitalism.

Workers outside the U.S., however, are looking at the GM strike, wondering what took U.S. workers so long to take up the issue.

Visiting the U.S. last spring, Yoon Youngmo, a leader of the militant South Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, chided his counterparts here for not fighting harder for their own jobs. "You make it more difficult," he said, "for us to defend our jobs in Korea, because the government and the chaebols constantly tell us to look at America. 'In America,' they say, 'unions don't try to stop layoffs or job elimination, and they're the most advanced unions in the world. Be more reasonable.'"

For two years the KCTU has been locked in a bitter battle against the government over exactly this issue -- jobs and corporate investment. Especially since the Asian economic meltdown, the South Korean government has sought to implement an austerity program based on high unemployment and vast cuts in the public budget.

The authors of this program, the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, have dictated the same prescription throughout Asia and Latin America. U.S. policy, which the IMF and World Bank enforce, encourages countries to bid for new plants, production and technology, by creating favorable investment conditions. Where wages are high, whether in South Korea or the U.S., unemployment and job loss are used to lower workers' expectations.

U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright recently reiterated that Asian governments must accept the "bitter medicine" of economic reforms. President Clinton has repeatedly threatened economic sanctions against countries like Indonesia, which hesitate.

Whether governed by dictators or democrats, in every country the same rules apply. When the KCTU threatened a general strike last week to force the government to stop the massive unemployment engulfing South Korea, former pro-democracy campaigner President Kim Dae Jung issued arrest warrants for 100 trade union leaders, and threw the head of the KCTU in prison.

In Flint, Michigan and Seoul, South Korea, unions are no longer striking over wages and benefits, but over the rules which govern which factories shut down, and how many workers will see their jobs disappear in the process.

Flint and Seoul are not exceptional. Puerto Rico just endured a 2-day general strike over the privatization of its telephone system, which threatens to eliminate thousands of jobs. In Russia, hundreds of coal miners have camped in front of Yeltsin's White House for months, calling on him to resign over policies which will close half the country's mines, and which cannot even assure the payment of miners' wages. Yeltsin, the democrat, now threatens to rule by decree to enforce the IMF's austerity plan.

U.S. workers for decades viewed themselves as exceptions to all this -- not subject to the same class conflict which has radicalized workers elsewhere. But they're being taught a new reality. Capital flows where the profits are highest. All countries must compete to create the most favorable conditions for investment.

Union organizers have a saying -- "the boss is the best teacher."

General Motors is proving them right.

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photographs and stories by David Bacon © 1990-

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