Sunday, February 17, 2008

First rumblings of resistance at Chrysler

Published Feb 15, 2008

Those who collect oxymorons can add a new one to their list: job security.

Any doubters can ask a Chrysler worker. Last week four assembly plants closed abruptly over a parts shortage, caused by a dispute with bankrupt parts supplier Plastech that threatened to shut every plant of the corporation. The company typically treated the parts shortage as a situation beyond its control, yet would there be parts shortages if Chrysler—which outsources more parts than either Ford or General Motors—would let UAW members do the work in house?

In fact this development was the latest of the conflicts between automakers and suppliers over the price of commodities, a tug-of-war in which workers are treated as mere strands on a fraying rope. While production resumed two days later, the situation underscored the precariousness of a Chrysler worker’s well-being.

The latest threat to their livelihoods, “a plan to right-size”—read shrink—“ts product line and dealership network”—and the workforce—is called “Project Genesis.” It follows earlier-announced cuts of 25,000 U.S. and Canadian jobs. While thousands of Chrysler workers will be seduced, with large sums of money, to quit or retire, unemployment looms on the horizon for thousands more.

Chrysler has set an ugly precedent with its treatment of the 119 “highly specialized surfacing designers” who were pink-slipped Jan. 31. That Thursday afternoon they were permanently laid off, and given one hour to pack up their things and leave. Members of UAW Local 412, these skilled designers represent over 20 percent of their bargaining unit.

Although Chrysler workers have grown accustomed to a steady decline in numbers, layoffs categorized as “permanent” come as a shock. Though drastic, cuts under the past few contracts had been achieved through attrition, i.e., not filling vacancies when workers die, quit or retire.

By imposing permanent layoffs that are not specifically “volume [sales] related,” Chrysler and the parent company Cerberus are flagrantly disregarding the contract with the UAW. That contract, almost rejected last October, passed by a few thousand votes on the promise of job security.

The aggressive moves on the part of the number three U.S. automaker reveal the impact and depth of the banking crisis. The short-lived euphoria over the sale of Chrysler has dissipated. The underwriters—the banks that financed the buyout with billion-dollar loans to Cerberus—are now desperately seeking investors to help take the debt off their backs.

With billions of dollars invested in both real estate and finance—including a 51 percent stake in the financial arm of General Motors—Cerberus itself has taken a big hit from the sub-prime mortgage/credit crunch. Now that the mortgage meltdown is turning into a global capitalist economic crisis, how will Chrysler’s restructuring—the destroying of more than 25,000 jobs—be financed? The bosses only know one solution to their quandary, and that is to further reduce the price of labor power with additional restructuring.

With its ranks so decimated, and with those most affected already out on the street, the UAW is in a highly defensive position. Workers are being stripped away from where they have the most leverage: at the point of production. Nevertheless, history shows—and UAW history is the rule not the exception—that workers will fight back. The question is not if but when.

Local 412 President Jeff Hagler has vowed to fight these layoffs. “It’s like war against the union, and we’re going to go back to war against them,” Hagler stated.

Right now the “war” is taking the form of a grievance. This is a necessary step, but it means essentially arguing the workers’ case in front of the very bosses who have ordered the layoffs in the first place. However, if the rank-and-file foot soldiers are mobilized to take the war to a higher level, the company’s absolutely ruthless agenda can be pushed back.


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