General Motors accomplished what generations of left-wing activists in the factories were never able to achieve. The company actually provoked a political strike.
The recent shutdown ended -- like almost all strikes -- with a compromise. But for the first time, the workers who paralyzed the giant corporation for more than three weeks did so not because of wages and working conditions, but in protest of GM's global investment strategies. These strategies determine, among other things, which plants grow and which plants die. For the first time, workers demanded a voice in the decision-making process that governs GM's global investments.
The strike took place, workers say, because GM reneged on a key commitment to the local union at the Flint Metal Center north of Detroit, where huge presses stamp out body parts for almost all the company's vehicles.
Three years ago, GM offered the union a trade. For decades, Flint workers have moved at a manic pace through breaks and meals, so they could leave early when they filled their production quota. 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 the newest GM factories in Mexico and Brazil.
But the promised new investment never materialized, and this summer 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 local union at the Flint Metal Center realizes all too well that production will gradually be transferred to plants elsewhere that have the new machinery. Without new investment, production at their facility will fall. And falling production means disappearing jobs.
To protect those jobs, workers decided they had to challenge GM's global investment strategy. For some time now, GM has chosen to reduce its dependence on its U.S. factories and concentrate on building new facilities elsewhere. A week after the strike started in Flint, a leaked company document revealed corporate plans to increase production in Mexico from 300,000 to 600,000 vehicles by 2006.
There is sound economic reasoning behind this decision, of course. "The productivity of workers in Mexican plants is on a par with plants in the U.S.," says University of California professor Harley Shaiken, an expert on Latin American labor. "Investors get first-world rates of productivity and a work force with a third-world standard of living."
The strike idled 150,000 U.S., Canadian and Mexican workers, many of whom identified with the cause. Even in Mexico, where wages are only a tenth of Detroit levels, workers have been told the company can find a lower-wage place to build the next factory. In other words, GM's investment priorities are now recognized as a central problem facing workers in every GM plant.
The strikers did not propose to bar GM investment in Mexico or other countries, or anything of that nature. They simply demanded sufficient investment in the U.S. to maintain the existing level of production. That simple demand, however, made the strike extremely political, and very difficult to settle. GM definitely does not want its workers to help decide its investment strategy.
On the other hand, workers outside the United States are wondering what took American workers so long to take up this issue. For example, on a visit to the United States last spring, Yoon Youngmo, a leader of the militant South Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), chided his counterparts here. "You make it more difficult 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.'"
The KCTU has been locked in a bitter battle over exactly the issue behind the Flint strike for two years, especially since the government began to implement an austerity program based on high unemployment and vast cuts in the public budget prescribed by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank -- programs strongly endorsed by the Clinton administration.
When the KCTU threatened a general strike to force the government to act, President Kim Dae Jung issued arrest warrants for 100 trade union leaders and threw the head of the KCTU in prison.
As they see how corporate investment flows to where the profits are highest, and how their countries must compete to create favorable conditions for that investment, workers like those in Flint and Seoul seem more likely than ever to seek to gain a voice over those decisions.