Break Room Trash Talk Becomes Book

Bennett Baumer Nov 2, 2012

Autoworkers Under the Gun: A Shop-Floor View of the End of the American Dream
By Gregg Shotwell
Haymarket Books, 2012

In Autoworkers Under the Gun retired machine operator and United Auto Workers (UAW) dissident Gregg Shotwell chronicles the events leading up to the auto bailouts of 2009, starting with the spinoff of Delphi Automotive Systems from General Motors in 1999. Shotwell, an active union member who put in 30 years with GM, spoke out against the plan to move the company’s entire parts division to Delphi at the UAW bargaining convention that same year, citing the wage cuts that workers at Delphi would face:

“How can we hope to organize parts plants if all we have to offer is prevailing wage? They’ve got prevailing wage and it stinks. We want parity with the Big Three for all parts plants. … Brothers and sisters, if you work for one of the Big Three today, beware.”

In 2005, Shotwell’s warning to workers became a reality when Delphi hired “turnaround expert” Steve Miller as CEO. Miller’s one objective was to drive Delphi into bankruptcy as fast as possible and then gut unionized workers’ wages and pensions. Shotwell said of Miller: “A white collar and a tie don’t make a thug any less despicable.”

The book’s selections are culled from Shotwell’s Live Bait & Ammo newsletter, which began circulating in factory shop floors and break rooms in 1998. While he documents the capitalist creative destruction and restructuring of the American auto industry and laments the demise of U.S.-made unionized car-making, he also offers insight into the root of the problem.

In one essay he unleashes a barrage of numbers, and one statistic in particular stuck with me: In 1992 GM employed 265,000 UAW members who produced 4.4 million vehicles. By 2007 only 75,000 UAW members remained, but they still produced roughly the same number of vehicles, demonstrating an incredible increase in efficiency.

However, these increases in production have come at a high cost for workers, and Shotwell excoriates UAW officials for negotiating the industry-wide two-tier wage system (lower wages and benefits for new hires) that divides younger and older workers. He also takes on UAW leaders for their role in the union’s decline. He mocks the Solidarity House, the UAW’s Detroit headquarters, as the “Sold-our-Dignity House,” and his critiques often veer into ad hominem personal attacks. Are some of his attacks unfair? Yes, and Shotwell is also too cynical about dissidents taking control of local unions and is clear-eyed about the UAW’s decline and failure to organize foreign automakers producing stateside.

In the 2008 essay, “In Defense of American Workers,” Shotwell sums up the current crisis facing autoworkers, as well as the labor movement as a whole:

“Conflict is fundamental to change, but when we are mostly concerned about our individual economic security rather than the security of our class as a whole, we are more likely to settle for the safe bet and the status quo.”

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