Autoworkers and Mass Consciousness

By the Editors

United Auto Workers President Ron Gettelfinger instructed his dues-paying members that they must do what no self-respecting union had ever done before: help their employers compete more successfully with their non-union competitors. How? By agreeing to a massive reduction in autoworkers’ wages and benefits!

Even more self-destructive is the new contract’s division of the union into three groups—first-tier, second-tier, and temporary workers—directly violating the union principle that is the only source of workers’ power: class solidarity.

Nevertheless, by November 15, autoworkers employed by the Big Three U.S. auto giants, General Motors, Chrysler, and Ford, voted to accept a contract that by the time it expires in 2011 will have reduced wages and benefits by half—providing it holds up until then.

The explanation provided by employers and widely reported in the mass media was that they voted “yes” in order to save jobs. But since such trade-offs of wages, benefits, and a little bit of union power has been going on for decades, autoworkers already knew it would really contribute further to the decline in UAW membership from the 1.5 million-strong it was in 1979 to the half-million it is today. One doesn’t need a crystal ball to see that such a trade-off is an exchange of something for nothing.

In fact, so contemptuous of autoworkers and their union have the Big Three become that no sooner had workers at GM, Chrysler, and Ford each voted to accept the new contract than their respective employers announced new plant shutdowns and layoffs!

So, if it was not to save jobs, why did autoworkers vote “yes”? The beginning of the answer to this question is as plain as the nose on Gettelfinger’s face. It was the treasonous role played by the UAW leadership, without which a vote in favor of the biggest-ever giveback contract in labor history would have been impossible. More precisely, it was the last several decades of setbacks and givebacks that have led most autoworkers to the conclusion that either strikes don’t work anymore or, with the likes of Gettelfinger in control of the union apparatus, a strike would be lost before it began.

Thus, it becomes perfectly understandable—however wrongheaded—why many of the most experienced and class-conscious trade unionists decided to just take the money and run.

Also contributing significantly to the “yes” vote was the “buyout”—an offer of as much as $140,000 to all UAW members with at least 10 years of continuous service; and $70,000 for those with less than 10 years if they give up their healthcare coverage. In addition to increasing the vote for the contract, the most damaging effect of the buyout was the fact that it took many of the most experienced, union-conscious trade union activists out of the picture—seriously weakening the growing opposition by rank-and-file militants to the union-busting contract foisted on autoworkers by bosses and bureaucrats.

Being determines consciousness

The philosophers, who study the question of why people do what they do, have summed it up in the three words: “Being determines consciousness.”

This is a key to understanding why the poorest and hungriest workers are often among the first to take the risks involved in strikes and other forms of class confrontation. But it’s far from the only factor determining how masses of people consciously respond to the ups and downs of the class struggle. A no less important factor is the matter of which direction living standards are moving—especially when it changes suddenly.

Thus, because demand for jobs far exceeded demand for workers there were no successful strikes for the first three-and-a-half years after the stock-market crash of 1929. In fact, in strict accord with the aforementioned relation between being and consciousness, the greatest-ever worker uprising in American history was set in motion by a modest revival of the stagnant economy. Thus, the three big citywide strike victories of 1934 were triggered by the greater demand for workers, which in turn set in motion the labor upsurge of the 1930s.

Although objective conditions had not changed qualitatively, the modest increase in hiring that had begun put a little wind in the sails of the class-struggle left-wing leaders of the labor movement and their coworkers. By the beginning of 1934, militant trade-union activists and their leaders in three American cities led three victorious citywide strikes, which in turn detonated the explosion of class struggle of the 1930s.1

But workers who are not hungry are no less likely to struggle to defend and advance their class interests. Thus, immediately after the end of the Second World War the biggest and longest wave of strikes in American history began on November 21, 1945, when some 225,000 autoworkers poured out of General Motors’s 92 plants in 50 cities and conducted a successful 113-day strike.

Labor historian Art Preis, the author of Labor’s Giant Step: Twenty Years of the CIO, presents a graphic account of that historical period. We get the flavor of that experience from the following short description of the potential power to change the world in the hands of working people. Preis writes:

“In the 12 months following V-J Day more than 5,000,000 workers engaged in strikes. For the number of strikers, their weight in industry and the duration of the struggle, the 1945-46 strike wave in the U.S. surpassed anything of its kind in any capitalist county, including the British General Strike of 1926. Before its ebb it was to include the whole coal, railroad, maritime and communications industries, although not simultaneously.

“It is clear, in retrospect, that the American monopolies stood helpless before this awesome display of labor power. The corporations used their usual devices of trying to break picket lines with force and violence, police terror and injunctions. In Philadelphia, Chicago, Los Angeles, even Detroit, the cops beat up strikers, and workers were sentenced to jail terms for “contempt” of injunctions. But the forces of corporate power and political reaction were met by stiff mass resistance.

“The American industrial workers had learned a thing or two since their first great awakening in the Thirties. In 1946 there were few would-be scabs—and very few of them got through picket lines.”2

Background to the postwar strike wave

A little background will help put this event in its proper context. This biggest-ever strike wave, which is a long story in itself,3 was the result of the wartime policy of wage and price controls—capitalist-style. That is, wages were strictly frozen during the war, but while prices, for the most part, remained nominally unchanged, commodities like 5-cent candy bars, breakfast foods, and most other packaged and canned goods and the weight of their contents got progressively smaller and lighter. A similar, but readily apparent violation of price controls took place in the black market for meat kept in a back room to be sold to the highest bidder.

Thus, by the time the war ended, the purchasing power of wages had fallen significantly, but prices had risen just as fast and as far. That’s what triggered the massive outpouring of a fighting working class in the year-long series of strikes beginning within weeks of the end of the Second World War.

So, it can be seen that both the impact of mass unemployment and full employment, as well as both falling and rising living standards, can qualitatively alter the course of the class struggle. But in the end, it’s the struggle for a better life and a better world by the great majority of the exploited and oppressed that can and will change the world.

The most important lesson of those days is simply that none of it could have happened without a mass upsurge led on the ground by militant rank-and-file activists, who always serve as the labor movement’s driving force.

This takes us to the only fully positive consequence of the 2007-11 UAW contract—otherwise the biggest blow suffered by autoworkers and their union at the hands of bosses and bureaucrats.

Sometimes, the darkest clouds do have silver linings

Starting immediately after the Big Three’s campaign to cut autoworkers’ wages and benefits by more than half, a rank-and-file leadership movement erupted, made up of groups with names like Soldiers of Solidarity, Future of the Union, and Factory Rats Unite!

These groupings are in many ways like the union caucuses that have always competed with each other in union elections—much like political parties in electoral politics. But in this case they are not in competition with each other with rival programs of action. Rather, all three are united against Gettelfinger’s leadership caucus, which they have all dubbed the “concessions caucus.” Thus, it would be more accurate to say they are really the local websites of a movement known as Soldiers of Solidarity (SOS). Their interrelationship is much more like the relation between local unions in the UAW, which are in principle all united in their common need to defend and advance their class interests, than it is to rival caucuses.

Such websites and blogs are a welcome product of the Internet revolution. The proliferation of computers in the U.S.A. and the other advanced industrial countries has opened the door to a major new medium of communication between workers and, by the same token, an expansion of union democracy and rank-and-file activism. That is, it provides a way for rank-and-filers, so inclined, to play a far greater role in the internal life of their union.

How mass union consciousness was changed for the worse

This is where an understanding of the gradual undermining of union democracy comes into the picture. A substantial portion of the American working class today, don’t know what unions were like in the 1930s and ’40s. Unions throughout American history had met weekly—not monthly as is the case today. The change from weekly to monthly meetings was introduced shortly after the enactment of the Taft-Hartley Act—more popularly known in 1947 in all sections of the labor movement by leaders and members alike, as the “slave-labor” law.

Another innovation introduced around the same time was the extension of the time between the elections of union officers, from one year to three years. These changes, which put greater distance between rank-and-file workers and control over their unions, were an integral part of transforming the American unions from highly democratic institutions into bureaucratically deformed caricatures of genuine worker’s democracy.

The erosion of union democracy, however, didn’t come from below. It was engineered from the top by the most conservative wing of the labor bureaucracy, who would much rather play golf with the big shots of corporate America than go bowling with the rank-and-file of their union.

The question arises: Given the high level of union and class-consciousness of the labor movement in 1946, how could the labor bureaucracy get away with this crippling of union democracy?

There’s the rub. The American working class and their unions up until the end of 1946 and most of 1947 were one thing. But Taft-Hartley not only changed the rules of class war, it also radically changed mass consciousness as well from what it was at the beginning of 1947 to what it became at the end. Here’s how it was done.

The true story behind the Taft-Hartley ‘slave-labor’ law

The key provision in the slave-labor Taft-Hartley Act was the one requiring all elected union officers to sign a “Loyalty Oath,” that read, “I am not now, nor have I ever been a member of a subversive communist-controlled organization.”

After all, when class-consciousness was at its height, as it was throughout the period between 1934 and the end of 1947 there were literally millions of workers who were at least tolerant, if not necessarily supporters of socialist and communist ideas.

This was simply the result of the fact that it was often socialist-minded rank-and-filers and leaders who tended to spark and lead many of the biggest and most militant strike victories of the 1930s and ’40s. Thus, it was because of what they did that they tended to have the respect and at least the fraternal support of most trade unionists. Moreover, while most worker militants in the unions in those days might have disagreed with socialists over political questions, what proved to be more important was the fact that they more often than not tended to agree with them on tactics and strategy in the unions.

But it was the endorsement of the Loyalty Oath—the key ingredient of the slave-labor law—by the dominant wing of the labor bureaucracy that helped the bosses and their bipartisan capitalist government divide the labor movement on the purely diversionary and false question: are you for communism or for your country. One’s country, and one’s government are, after all, two entirely different things—at least according to Thomas Jefferson and other leaders of the first American Revolution—1776-1783.

The loyalty oath was the bait the ruling class put on the hook that the dominant wing of the labor bureaucracy greedily swallowed along with line and sinker. Knowing that such an oath was not directed at them but rather at militants in the unions, the most reactionary wing of the labor bureaucracy saw it as an opportunity for them to deal a blow to militant union activists who tended to form union caucuses to fight for democratic control over their union. In fact, by subordinating union solidarity to advance their own self-serving interests they violated the labor principle of union solidarity—“an injury to one is an injury to all.” That destruction of this time-honored labor principle and Taft-Hartley’s restrictions on the right to strike is why it was called a slave-labor law by both workers and bureaucrats.

Taft-Hartley served another purpose for capitalist America. It also divided the labor movement on the question of how to fight the slave labor law. The militant wing of the union officialdom headed by United Mine Workers’ President John L. Lewis wanted to fight the slave-labor law in the streets and factories of the nation where workers’ power is greatest—beginning with a refusal to sign the Loyalty Oath.

But the supporters of the Loyalty Oath were opposed to that kind of fight. That is, they were opposed to the kind of fight that built American unions into the world’s most powerful despite essentially the same kind of laws in effect before and during the great labor upsurge that began in 1934. Instead, the class-collaborationist bureaucrats put their faith in the Democratic Party.

However, while President Truman had vetoed Taft-Hartley, as it turned out it was only an unprincipled political maneuver. In the first place, he had twice tried to push such a law through Congress and failed. And in the second place, while Republicans held only the slimmest majority in both Houses of Congress, they did not have enough votes to override Truman’s veto. That’s where Truman and his Democrats revealed the cynical hypocrisy of his veto by providing more than enough votes to help their Republican confederates override their president’s veto.

And if that’s not enough, the proof of the pudding came after Truman was reelected based on his having vetoed and then promised to repeal Taft Hartley. In the four more years he served as president he did what capitalist politicians always do, especially when decisive issues vital to capitalist interests are at stake. He simply failed to keep his promise to the American workers.

Even so, and despite a trailer-truck-load of un-kept promises ever since, bureaucrats continue lining up votes for Democrats and from time to time, equally anti-labor Republicans as well.

However, there was another force at work that helped shift the relation of class forces to the right. This, too, is a manifestation of the three words outlining what makes people think what they think and do what they do—being determining consciousness.

Thus, it’s both ironical and paradoxical that the militant strike victories led by the class-conscious militants of the 1930s so improved the living standards of some of the best of them, that they began spending more of their spare time after a hard day’s work enjoying the better things of life that their well-deserved, higher-than-average wages made possible.

In other words, they relied much more than before on their leaders’ guarding the chicken coop, but the guardians of their union were also enjoying an even better and far-richer lifestyle by raising their pay from union wages to the level of salaries capitalists pay their CEOs and other corporate foxes. Thus, as many autoworkers now know, their official leaders had learned to become more concerned with the welfare of the foxes, who must eat chickens in order to live, than with the welfare of those who pay them to guard the chicken coop.

What makes Soldiers of Solidarity different?

Let’s take a closer look at what makes the leading activists of the Soldiers of Solidarity movement different. They not only “talk the talk and walk the walk” of class-struggle strategy and tactics, no less importantly they have shown they have a pretty good idea of what must be done next at each stage of the struggle—and they have done it. That’s something we have seen only rarely in the trade-union movement since the 1930s and ’40s.

Consequently, even though their attempt to stop the biggest bureaucratic giveback in American labor history did not succeed, a substantial nucleus of a new fighting union leadership in the UAW has been born.

Moreover, based on their performance thus far, there’s good reason to expect that they will also know how to survive, grow, and turn their defensive struggle into an offensive campaign when the opportunity arises.

In other words, the principal leaders and organizers of Soldiers of Solidarity have shown a deep understanding of the art and science of class struggle. Such understanding can only come from their years of experience on factory assembly lines and workbenches, as well as from the lessons and other conclusion drawn from their study of the history of class struggle in America and the world.

One of the most important lessons of this history is the need to carefully judge the relation of forces among workers, capitalists, and the bureaucrats who interpose themselves between workers and bosses—as mediators, not as leaders of workers under attack. That is, just as it’s not a good idea for anyone to bite off more than he or she can chew, it’s an even bigger mistake for the most well-intentioned workers’ leaders to target goals beyond what is possible given the existing relation of forces between workers and bosses, even if every iffy factor in the equation of class struggle turns out as planned.

One of the principal leaders of this emerging rank-and-file movement is an autoworker and long-time UAW activist named Gregg Shotwell. The reason we have tended to focus on his role in building this movement is because of his unusual ability to figure out what needs to be done next, explain why it’s the best way to go and thereby help pass on what he has learned to his coworkers.

This, it seems to us, is because Shotwell and other leaders of this movement have shown a deep understanding of labor history and its lessons, which evidently serve as their guide to effective mass working-class action.

By setting their sights on practical in-plant action, rather than proposing or discussing strike action in the period leading up to the vote on the contract and explaining why and how it served the interests of the bosses, they posed the immediate task as being the defeat of this extremely pro-employer contract. At the same time they laid the basis for effective strike action if it was defeated.

Unfortunately, as we had noted earlier, the decades of bureaucratic misleadership and the absurdity of strikes that were supposedly victories for both workers and bosses had convinced most workers that the strike is no longer the most decisive weapon in the hands of workers and their unions. Thus, SOS leaders understood that it was necessary to re-educate their coworkers in the real meaning of union solidarity. That’s the meaning of the slogan “Workers will rule when they work to rule!”

We focus our analysis on the contribution made by Brother Shotwell, because he appears to be as good with his pen as he is with his sword. Here is a sample of what Shotwell had to say and how thoughtfully he said it. It’s an extract from one of the first of his reports to autoworkers, reprinted in the January/February 2006 edition of this magazine, and titled, “Workers Will Rule When They Work to Rule.”

“The slogan ‘work to rule’ has a double meaning. Work to rule is a method of slowing production by following every rule to the letter. The aim is to leverage negotiations. Work to rule is also an invocation for workers to govern collectively, to control the conditions of their labor. Work to rule means power to the people.

“Work to rule is an in-plant strategy, a method of influencing negotiations without going on strike. Workers follow the boss’s orders but do nothing on their own initiative. They keep their knowledge and experience to themselves, defer all decisions to the straw boss, and let the pieces fall where they may. . . .

“In the 1930s union members occupied factories. The sit-down strikes were illegal, but there is a higher authority than the bossing class. When workers work to rule, human rights take precedence over property rights. In the 1930s workers claimed ownership of their jobs and stared down the barrel of a gun to win union recognition. . . .

“Management thinks they control the plant with their clipboards, portable phones, and panties twisted in a knot. But when workers work to rule the bosses find out who really runs the plant, who keeps machines humming, production flowing, and the money coming in. . . .

“Workers are not saboteurs. Workers want to build, not destroy. Work to rule simply means: to rigorously adhere to Process Control Instructions and strive to meet the stated goals of high quality, lean inventory, and just-in-time delivery in order to compel ‘cooperation’ from the boss. Working to rule is like keeping kosher a strict code of law.’”

The reader will see how real leaders lead. This includes a heavy dose of explaining the laws that determine the outcome of strikes and other confrontations between labor and capital. But no less important, it shows a deep understanding of the transitional method that has been applied by some of the best class-struggle leaders in labor history.

SOS building a new movement ‘On the Ashes of the old’

Even though SOS’s attempt to stop the biggest bureaucratic giveback in American labor history did not succeed, a substantial nucleus of a new fighting union leadership in the UAW has been born.

Moreover, rather than having been demoralized by their unsuccessful campaign against the biggest giveback contract in labor history engineered by Big Three bosses and UAW bureaucrats, they have set about the task of building a broader movement of militant trade-union activists.

That is, SOS and its component formations Future of the Union, Factory Rats Unite, in conjunction with “Labor Notes and numerous rank and-file committees of resistance will sponsor a one-day meeting for all autoworker activists on the recent concessionary Big Three Auto Contracts. The session will be an opportunity to analyze the economic and structural impact of the negotiations, to share experiences from the effort to mobilize opposition, and explore strategies and tactics for reclaiming unionism’s direction and rebuilding rank & file solidarity.4”

Though it is directed exclusively at autoworkers, the inclusion of a number of sponsors of this one-day affair beginning with Labor Notes, which is an existing movement of trade-union activists from many unions, gives the upcoming conference an all-union character. (See the leaflet announcing “Autoworker Activists Gathering” on page 10.)

We look forward in the spirit of revolutionary working-class optimism to a successful outcome to this important gathering in Flint, Michigan on Saturday, January 26, 2008.


1Labor’s Giant Step: Twenty Years of the CIO, by Art Preis, Pioneer Publishers, New York, 1964. The author was also a participant in the first big strike by autoworkers at the very beginning of 1934—the Toledo Electric Auto-Lite strike. See “Three Strikes That Paved the Way,” pages 19 to 33.

2 Ibid

3 Ibid.

4 Autoworker Activists Gathering leaflet (see next page.)