A brief history of the interesting national strike of the United Auto Workers union at General Motors, organised in conjunction with management to allow workers to blow off steam.
In the course of US strikes in the late 1960s and early 1970s, union and management officials at the bargaining table have often appeared as partners trying to devise a formula and a strategy which will get the workers back to work and keep them there. As the New York Times wrote of the July, 1971, telephone strike, "Union and management. . . were manifestly less concerned about any real differences between them than about how to fashion an agreement that would satisfy the inflated expectations of a restless union rank and file."1
The strike itself is sometimes actually part of the strategy to control the workers - albeit a costly one. A fascinating series of articles in the Wall Street Journal described "union-management cooperation" to get the workers back to work and build up the authority of the union in the course of the 1970 General Motors strike. According to the series, after U.A.W. President Reuther died suddenly, "G.M. had to consider the crisis at Solidarity House, the U.A.W.'s headquarters, and the problems of a new union president-problems that could influence U.A.W. control over the men in G.M. plants."2 G.M.'s "goal was union help to bolster productivity."3 From the union-management viewpoint, a strike was necessary for three reasons. First, a long strike would
help to wear down the expectations of members, expectations that in the current situation have been whetted by memories of recent good times and by the bite of inflation. This trimming of hopes eases the difficult task of getting members to ratify settlements leaders have negotiated. (More than one of every 10 agreements hammered out by union officials is rejected by union members.)4
As one U.A.W. official put it privately, "The guys go out on strike expecting the moon. But after a few weeks of mounting bills and the wife raising hell about his hanging around the house all day watching TV while she works, the average worker tends to soften his demands."5
Second, a long strike would "create an escape valve for the frustrations of workers bitter about what they consider intolerable working conditions imposed by companies' single-minded drive for greater production and profits."6
Third, a long strike would
foster union loyalty and pull together various rank-and-file factions by uniting them against a common enemy, and strengthen the position of union leaders, who must stand for re-election regularly by a membership that is constantly turning over and that is wary of leaders in general, union leaders included.7
The strike "permits union leaders to assert their manhood-at least in the eyes of their followers. It is the best way they have to demonstrate that they are 'tough' and thus to refute the assertion, common among workers, that the union's leaders are really in bed with management."8
But, the Journal points out, it is not only union leaders who recognize these functions of official strikes.
Surprisingly, among those who do understand the need for strikes to ease intra-union pressures are many company bargainers. . . . They are aware that union leaders may need such strikes to get contracts ratified and to get re-elected. In fact, some company bargainers figure strikes actually help stabilize fragmented unions and, by allowing workers to vent their "strike need," actually buy peace in future years.9
Unfortunately, from the union-management point of view, this approach nearly backfired in the General Motors strike. In order to generate pressure for settlement of "local issues," "top negotiators for both sides. . . indicated they won't return to serious bargaining on national issues until the bulk of the union's 155 local bargaining units reach agreement with G.M.,"10 Even though "company and union officials say they can reach a national agreement after settling local issues in about ten days. . . "11 Cooperation was so close that General Motors lent the U.A.W. $1O million to pay the medical insurance bills of the striking workers.12 Both sides want G.M. to be able to resume operations quickly after a national agreement is reached."13 But workers simply refused to agree to local settlements, raising the spectre of a long strike going out of union control and defeating its original purpose.
Both sides agree that if the strike had dragged on past Thanksgiving, it would have paved the way for an epic dispute continuing into the new year. Such a possibility could have tipped the scales within the U.A.W. from a "heroic struggles" strengthening of Mr. Woodcock to a messy strike beyond the control of the top leaders.14
To forestall this threat, top G.M. and U.A. W. negotiators went into secret talks to settle the national contract despite the unresolved local disputes. The contract did not fulfill G.M.'s dream of cutting labor costs by strengthening work discipline, but, wrote the Journal, the company received as "consolations" -
the knowledge that peace is probably assured when it next bargains with the U.A.W., in 1973, and perhaps for many years thereafter (at least over national contract issues); the prospect that the U.A.W. . . . emerged stronger and thus may be able to speak more confidently for its members who are younger, less loyal and increasingly distrustful of employer and union alike."15
Excerpted and slightly edited to make sense as a stand-alone text from Strike! - Jeremy Brecher.
- 1. Editorial, New York Times, July 21, 1971.
- 2. Wall Street Journal, Nov. 20, 1970.
- 3. Ibid.
- 4. Wall Street Journal, Oct. 29, 1970.
- 5. Ibid.
- 6. Ibid.
- 7. Ibid.
- 8. Ibid.
- 9. Ibid.
- 10. Wall Street Journal, Oct. 5, 1970.
- 11. Ibid.
- 12. New York Times, July 18, 1971.
- 13. Wall Street Journal, Nov. 20, 1970.
- 14. Wall Street Journal, Oct. 5, 1970.
- 15. Ibid. See also "Notes on the Official Strike in 1970," unpublished paper by Joel Stein.