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Walter Jason

UAW Men Disappointed
by Contract with Ford

(2 October 1949)


From Labor Action, Vol. 13 No. 41, 10 October 1949, p. 1.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).


DETROIT, Oct. 2 – Perhaps it is too early to make final judgment on the far-reaching consequences of the new Ford-UAW pact covering pensions and the two and a half year contract but some preliminary comments arc both possible and necessary.

The elation of the top leadership of the United Auto Workers over the pact is not shared by the ranks. The first reaction in the shops was one of disappointment. This was true at least in the Ford, Briggs, Chrysler and Dodge plants where we checked.

The reasons for this unfavorable first reaction were obvious. Among the older workers, the idea prevailed that the UAW would obtain a $100 a month pension from the company, plus social security, and that retirement would be possible after 25 years seniority with full benefits. They thought Walter Reuther would be able to duplicate what John L. Lewis had done for the coal miners.

Usually, when a new contract or a provision is signed which does not meet with the expectations of the ranks, an effective standard selling point is the argument: “This is just the first step in the right direction. We’ll improve it next year. Now we have a foothold.” But the news that the Ford pension cannot be improved until 1955 (except for an “improvement” which benefits the company) has taken away the attractiveness of that particular argument.
 

Non-Contributory?

The hope among older workers that perhaps the total amount of benefits would at least be increased if the social-security payments were increased by action of Congress was shattered when they read that if social-security benefits increase, the Ford Motor Company decreases its contribution, and the total remains $100 a month, for 30 years’ seniority at 65 years of age!

One of the major arguments of the Reuther faction against the Ford pension plan of 1947 which Dick Leonard advocated accepting was that it did riot have joint union-company administration. They advocated at least something like the coal miners’ setup, where labor, the coal operators and a “public trustee” share administration.

Under the Ford plan signed by the UAW leadership, the company retains full control of its administration and the investment of its funds. The union has a say only about the eligibility of a given employee.

As for the main argument that the Ford plan is “non-contributory,” it is difficult to understand. Ford workers are giving up a wage increase to contribute roughly 8½ cents an hour for a pension plan. They contribute their social security payments as part of the $100 a month.

As part of the package the Ford workers are expected to give up all wage demands, except once during the life of the contract. That seems to us to bq. quite a contribution, for if means that Ford workers get only one wage increase from 1948 to 1952! (Ford workers got a raise in 1948.)
 

Murray Seems Skeptical

Frankly, we don’t pretend to understand at present the significance of this part of the plan: “Contributions of the pension fund at the rate of 8% cents an hour, or an estimated $20,000.000 a year for slightly more than 11 years, should enable the company, through an investment trust drawing 2% per cent interest, to finance its obligation completely.” Does that mean that at the end of 11 years the interest on the annual fund put aside by Ford (in place of a wage increase) will be big enough so that the whole thing won’t cost Ford a dime? That is what the pro-Reuther labor editor of the Detroit Free Press wrote in his column Sunday!

The New York Times reported Friday that CIO President Philip Murray was annoyed at some of the provisions of the Ford agreement, like the one which permits a decrease in the payments by the company when social-security payments increase.

Certainly, if after a steel strike the result is a pension plan modeled on the Ford pact, the steel workers in Pennsylvania are going to get quite a razzing from the coal miners living in the same town who draw better pensions administered largely under union domination! No wonder Murray is skeptical.

There are many other aspects of the pension question which deserve consideration, but they will have to wait for more study for final answers. Will this plan tend to conservatize the union, since it puts pressure on the individual worker to keep working and heightens his fear of being fired? We think so. Will it signify greater auto-worker productivity by eliminating the older worker, and thus give the company labor-saving gains? Will it tend to exclude older men from getting jobs in industry ... as for example in the pre-union days when the companies wouldn’t hire a man over 40? What can be done for the thousands of auto workers who have 30 years’ seniority but not in one plant? What happens to them, in relation to the union?
 

Contract Question Marks

Another major source of disappointment in the Ford contract was its 2½ year extension – a disturbing trend – without any MAJOR changes. There is some dispute about the extent of the changes, and until copies of the whole contract are available, conclusive answers are difficult.

Ford publicity says the “company security” clause was retained, and the company is very well pleased with this fact. UAW spokesmen claim that this notorious clause has been modified and an important improvement made. At least this much is certain: Ford thinks it didn’t give anything away, while the UAW hasn’t felt sufficiently sure of itself to dispute the Ford statement publicly. Frankly, we think the UAW spokesmen are stretching a. couple of points to sell this contract.

An example of the kind of changes which took place in the contract concerns probationary employees. The length of time for probation has been reduced from six months to three months. But in paid-holiday payments, seniority is figured as if the six months’ probation stands! You have to be there six months to be eligible? Improvement?

The whole question of speedup remains a very big question mark. A new “work standard clause” is supposed to be in the contract based on the recent ruling of the “impartial” board that was set up after the inconclusive Ford speedup strike in May, 1948. But the company and the union disagree on interpretation of that ruling, so where does that leave the Ford workers?
 

Reutherites Don’t Like It

Will this pact be accepted? We are inclined to think so. The steel strike has already focused attention on the problem of layoffs here, and the argument “We can’t strike, we are being laid off” is very effective. The argument “It’s the best under the circumstances” does have an appeal ip that context. But the fact remains that under the circumstances of 1945’s social-political climate, under the circumstances of unified UAW leadership and ranks, and under the circumstances of the UAW’s history of militancy and struggle, this agreement does not live up to the standards which everyone had the right to expect from the UAW and the Reuther leadership.

For once Walter Reuther has given his factional opponents material based on facts. For once his prestige his suffered in the eyes of his own followers. Only the utter discreditment of the Stalinists and his other factional opponents will save him. There are many Reutherites this week who are not the uncritical enthusiasts they were two weeks ago.

The UAW is now proceeding to negotiate similar pacts at Chrysler and General Motors, The Detroit Free Press today told the story which has been rumored around Detroit in recent weeks: General Motors has approached UAW on the pension question and an extension of the present contract!

Perhaps the UAW ranks can improve this pension contract at least in the other two major companies; That remains to be seen.


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