The auto workers are facing serious trouble these days The trouble was dramatized by an incident reported in the Detroit News (Feb. 16):
The UAW’s 24-year tenure as spokesman for 550,000 Detroit-area auto workers was challenged today. Ouster of the Union as bargaining agent for employees at the Nine Mile press plant of Chrysler Corp. was demanded in petitions circulated by a rank-and-file committee.
This development is the first of its kind since the United Automobile Workers Union forced General Motors to its knees in 1937—and then won contracts from Chrysler, Ford and the lesser companies. The UAW is taking steps to suppress the rift for fear it might have damaging effects on this year’s contract negotiations.
But the real significance of the “rank and file committee” is that it puts into sharp focus the basic problem plaguing auto workers in the Detroit area. A union spokesman at the Nine Mile plant explained how the trouble started: “On February 7 Chrysler announced a transfer of stamping operations from another plant to its Nine Mile plant. The Nine Mile employees feared they would be bumped from their jobs, because of a UAW agreement with Chrysler that when operations are moved to a new location, the employees performing the operations move with the job.” The spokesman said some of the Nine Mile men had already been bumped by the follow-the-job-operation employees with greater seniority. “So the Nine Mile workers are greatly worried.”
Employees in Chrysler’s other Detroit plants are also “greatly worried.” They know that thousands of their fellow workers who have been laid off will never again be called back. Those displaced workers are the victims of technological and structural changes in the auto industry since the post-war period. In modernizing its plants Chrysler, for many years Detroit’s biggest employer, trailed behind General Motors and Ford. Chrysler was still building its cars in obsolete multi-story plants after General Motors and Ford had erected assembly plants tailored to fit automated machinery, in strategic market areas across the country. To survive Chrysler was forced to follow the pattern of decentralization and automation. Chrysler is of course the weakest of the Big Three. But if it can’t match GM and Ford in capital investment, it can and does pursue a policy of pitting its workers against the machines of its competitors. Old timers in Chrysler plants insist that speedup is now more intense than at any time since the thirties.