Gone Limp, The Sellout of the UAW's Largest Local
Rich Gibson, January 2000

(Printed in Impact, March 2000)

Capital's ability to segment people, rooted in the war of all on all that partially originates in the struggle for surplus value and employment, is especially powerful now-perhaps incrementally powerful in the richest country in the history of the world-when the limits of rewards and punishment are stretched at both ends. What follows is a story of that segmentation.

State of Michigan workers, numbering more that 50,000, do not have collective bargaining. Their working lives are governed by a Civil Service Commission appointed by the governor which has final authority over all personnel actions. Their numbers have eroded in the last 15 years, by about 10,000-the largest numbers lost in the closings of state mental institutions and the near-eradication of the welfare system.

The state work force is organizationally divided along occupational lines, the result of a deal made between the state employer and AFL affiliates about 20 years ago. The employer won representational units based, not upon state departments (like everyone in the Family Independence Agency) but based on the job classifications of the workers. All secretaries, across work sites, across departments, are in one unit; professionals in another. The unions got a promise, kept, of dues check-off, and the elimination of troublesome groups not affiliated with the AFL-CIO. These conditions do not distinguish the Michigan state employees much from other state employees around the country, but there are a few things about them that do.

The fastest growing section of the work force, represented by SEIU, is composed of prison employees, a unit which now holds about 10,000 workers. But State of Michigan employees in UAW Local 6000 (most of them social workers) represent the largest UAW local in the world, with about 20,000 members (other state workers belong to a variety of unions; SEIU, AFSCME, POM, and an independent association). Local 6000 is the inheritor of militant histories absent from the other state unions.

Local 6000 embraces former members of the Welfare Employees Union, a tough independent once representing about 3,000 people, based mostly in Detroit's Wayne County Department of Social Services. WEU had been the home and cradle to a variety of city radicals, including some of the founding members of the anarchist Fifth Estate newspaper, leaders from the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, the Communist Labor Party, the IWW, the Progressive Labor Party, and others. WEU had led the unsuccessful fight for collective bargaining, seized buildings in sit-down actions, and developed a tradition of "the ferocious defense of the rank and file, by the rank and file," which reverberated long after its demise in the late 1970's.

In addition, Local 6000 includes in its top leadership former members of the State Workers Organizing Committee which sought to organize state workers, community people, and clients-focused on a program which sprang from a program with a familiar foundation: "Working people and bosses have nothing in common but opposition." SWOC functioned as a caucus within several state unions, usually holding the leadership in Wayne County (Detroit) locals. At one point, in a battle with the state about welfare cuts, SWOC leaders assaulted the heads of state departments leading a meeting at the Detroit Fair Grounds by dumping live snakes on them. In another instance, SWOC members invaded the state capitol moments before Governor James Blanchard's inauguration, burned his 20' banner on the steps of the capitol building, and held him hostage while the assembled state legislators waited for negotiations about welfare cuts to conclude. In 1982, when AFL-CIO officials tried to hold a secret Lansing meeting with the governor's representatives to quietly gain a concession contract, SWOC members broke down doors, invaded the meeting, and their arrests sabotaged the concession process. It was, later, SWOC leadership that suggested and won affiliation with the UAW-which won an election decertifying another union on the promise of delivering collective bargaining to Michigan state employees.

Quickly, second-tier SWOC leaders moved into high UAW Local 6000 positions, fought among themselves, and established small fiefdoms around the state. Today, more than a decade later, only a handful of former activists hold power in the union, most having dropped out of unionism altogether. The local now is run, for the most part, by people who have no history of action on the job, a badge of the entire labor movement. However, in 1999, even the local bureaucrats got restless. The state Civil Service Commission had issued an edict, underlining its "sovereign" control, saying that the Commission could and would overturn any and all sections of the UAW contract, day by day if necessary. Then the Commission moved to reduce retiree benefits and intensified a privatization plan that has slashed the state work force by about 18% in the last decade. Moreover, and perhaps more worrisome to union leaders, the Commission attacked the paid leaves that union leaders enjoy under the state contract. And, as a coup-de-grace the Commission sent a letter to every state employee, advising them of their right to quit the union and pay a service fee. Less than 1% did.

Feeling powerless to call a job action, Local 6000 officers decided to place the question of collective bargaining for state workers before the people, on the Michigan ballot in November 2000. To accomplish that goal, they would need more than 300,000 signatures on petitions. To do that, they would need 500,000 signatures to capture a valid group.

They felt they could do it. With 20,000 members, the leaders guessed they could mobilize 40,000 family members. Then add the vaunted clout of the UAW and the AFL-CIO, and it could be done. Following the tenets of the AFL-CIO "worker to worker campaign," an organizing strategy that seeks to get union members to vote by first involving them in issue-oriented work, Local 6000 suggested to the UAW hierarchy that they had a good plan, one that could mobilize many Michigan voters. The UAW even highlighted their idea in their magazine, "Solidarity." UAW Local 6000 readied by training 1,000 local leaders in the need for the petition drive. They were set to go in early January.

In December, 1999, things got sticky. The UAW national leadership backed off. Assessing the situation, they realized that the collective bargaining petition could be easily linked to a tax increase, that their Democratic candidates in close elections would be whipsawed by demands for support and the attacks of conservative Republicans screaming "tax and spend." The UAW threw a series of maneuvers at the Local leaders: No, you cannot use Black Lake (UAW's palatial training camp in northern Michigan); No, the UAW cannot devote much attention to this; No, we won't be able to provide financial support.

The Local 6000 leadership pressed on regardless. They planned to begin the petition drive without the UAW support, and to gain enough signatures to demonstrate the viability of the campaign. They were convinced they could prevail if they could get their message to the citizens, though they had done no polling whatsoever.

The UAW got tough. Top UAW officers called the Local 6000 leadership to a meeting. They informed the local officials that they were jeopardizing the UAW's electoral plans, that they would get no UAW or AFL support. To the contrary, a letter would be circulated to every local in the AFL, urging rejection of the petition. Furthermore, they hinted that local leaders who would be so irresponsible to do a thing like this were clearly financially corrupt. The local could be seized and they could be jailed. On the other hand, the UAW promised to think about supporting the proposal in 2002, although they noted there is a gubernatorial election then. They did offer up Black Lake, for training to be determined. The Local 6000 leaders, furious but overwhelmed, caved in. There will be no petition for collective bargaining in Michigan. Instead, they will be conducting a campaign for Al Gore-from Black Lake. And, in the year 2002, they say they will try again since, "There is nothing else to do. We have gone limp." Meanwhile, they have notified the rank and file, in worker to worker meetings, that the UAW sold them out.

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