How can workers fight back as bosses and politicians seek to impose a regime of austerity and profits before people?
A strike by nearly 3,000 workers at Volvo truck makers in the United States has important lessons.
It is showing the need for rank and file organisation, and that union leaders cannot be trusted to head up a fight.
The strike, over pay and a two-tier employment system, has shut down the largest Volvo truck manufacturing facility in the world.
And workers have twice rejected deals negotiated by their United Auto Workers (UAW) union’s national leaders .
On 6 June they rejected a “new” offer by 90 percent. Now strikers are back on the picket line.
The first vote had come on 16 May, after a two-week strike that began in mid-April.
Despite the strike being solid, the union told strikers to return to work before they even knew the terms of the deal. When they did discover what was on the table they furiously voted it down.
The Labor Notes website reports one worker saying, “On the first day back in the plant after the first vote, officials circulated a survey asking members’ top five issues to fix. Everybody’s saying, ‘It’s more than five’. They’re filling up the page front and back.”
Volvo divides workers into “core” and “competitive”, depending on their years of experience.
They have vastly different pay levels and conditions.
Newly recruited workers start at just £11.85 an hour and get less than a pound more each year for five years.
Their maximum pay is £15.35 an hour, far less than the core top pay of £21.20 an hour.
Under the rejected offer, although there are pay increases, the tiers remain. Volvo wants to keep this so that post-pandemic it can make even greater profits from its truck division. It has seen soaring demand as delivery firms became more crucial during the pandemic.
But why are the trade union leaders going along with the bosses?
Some of those at the top of the UAW nationally have a disgusting record of corruption.
The US Justice Department found some UAW executives —including those involved in deals that made huge concessions to firms—were taking bribes or embezzling union money.
But union leaders don’t have to be directly paid off or offered a favour to act in a way that lets down strikers.
Top union leaders everywhere see their role as settling disputes and balancing between bosses and workers.
Without workers’ organisation and struggle they have nothing to bargain with.
So sometimes they do support a fightback.
But they always want to keep it within strict limits. This is disastrous when the other side is determined.
There is now an urgency about raising the level of resistance.
Companies and governments will try to emerge from the pandemic having held down wages and worsened conditions.
They have rediscovered brutal weapons such as fire and rehire to use against workers.
The Volvo strike shows that rank and file workers can stand together against the bosses—and begin to organise themselves independently.
But crucially they can also pressure the union leaders into action .There are some early signs that there is rising struggle in the US.
There have been strikes by coal miners in Alabama, steelworkers in Pennsylvania, nurses in Massachusetts, oil workers in Texas and others.
It’s too early to say whether this will become a surge as happened with the teachers’ strikes and other action in 2018.
But a win at Volvo would be an inspiration to all.