BY SETH GALINSKY
According to the latest U.S. government figures, factory employment increased by 225,000 last year. The modest increase coincides with continued success by the bosses in substantially cutting wages, especially for new hires.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that wages and benefits paid to workers per unit of production has declined 13.6 percent in the U.S. in the last 10 years; it dropped 4 percent from 2009 to 2010.
This confirms what working people already know from our own experience. The capitalist owners of production are seeking to boost their declining rates of profit through two-tier wages, concession contracts, the expansion of temporary work, speedup and layoffs.
Fuller Money, a website for investors, called the speedup and wage and benefit cuts over the last year in particular “one of the most encouraging items” for the new year, claiming it is a “prerequisite for a reversal of the long decline in manufacturing jobs.”
In the 1980s bosses in the U.S. drove down real wages to early 1960s levels. In the late ’90s wages were largely stagnant. But with the deepening economic crisis of recent years, bosses have launched an extensive campaign to deepen the rate of exploitation.
The big three auto companies are in the vanguard in imposing two-tier wages. According to the New York Times, some 12 percent of Chrysler’s 23,000 union workers now earn about $14 an hour, half what longtime workers make. At the General Motors plant in Orion Township, Mich., 40 percent of workers are on a lower tier.
General Electric, which has 219 factories in the U.S. and 230 plants overseas, pays new hires in the U.S. $12 to $19 an hour while longtime workers get $21 to $32.
The bosses have also expanded their use of temporary workers, paying them few or no benefits and lower wages. From 1990 to 2008, the number of temporary workers in the U.S. more than doubled, from 1.1 million to 2.3 million.
The drop in wages in the U.S., while wages in China have risen, has somewhat narrowed the U.S-China wage gap. Enough, according to the New York Times, that some companies have moved production from China to the U.S.
Workers at Oshkosh Corp., which makes military trucks, voted down a contract in September and again in October when the company demanded the right to make as much as 10 percent of the workforce temporary employees without union representation by the United Auto Workers.
“It’s all about the money,” Don Forster, 58, who works on the wheel-end table, said in a phone interview. “They don’t want to pay pensions, they want to go the cheaper route. Having temporary workers goes against the grain of what a union stands for.”
While workers forced the withdrawal of the temporary worker proposal, the company succeeded in pushing down workers’ income.
“We have a five-year contract with only an 8 percent raise,” Forster said. “But our health insurance has more than doubled, we’re paying through the nose.”
At the same time, the company is pushing for a faster line speed. “They say they’re promoting safety,” Forster noted, “But in reality it’s ‘hurry up and get done.’”
Working-class resistanceAcross the country capitalist owners in a wide range of industries have locked out workers who refuse to go along with concessions or forced them out on strike. Among the companies: Armstrong World Industries in Marietta, Pa., which locked out 260 workers for five months; American Crystal Sugar in North Dakota and Minnesota, where 1,300 workers have been locked out since Aug. 1; Dayton Beach Park Co-Op apartments in Queens, New York, where building maintenance workers went on strike July 7; C.H. Guenther & Son Pioneer Flour Mill in San Antonio, Texas, where workers walked off the job April 25; Honeywell Corp., in Metropolis, Ill., which locked out 200 workers for 13 months; and many more.
In many cases, bosses have pushed through concessions without much organized resistance. In New York City, St. Luke’s Roosevelt Hospital Center pushed through a contract at the end of December forcing nurses to pay health insurance premiums for the first time.
And Service Employees International Union Local 32BJ signed a tentative deal with the Realty Advisory Board there for 22,000 office cleaners in January that includes lengthening a lower tier for new hires from the first 30 months to 42 months and decreases their starting pay from 80 percent to 75 percent of the base rate for long-time employees.
Workers at Roquette America in Keokuk, Iowa, were locked out in September 2010 after voting down a concession contract. The union fought hard, but after 10 months they went back to work. The company’s original proposal of starting new hires at $4 less than long-term employees was reduced to $2.
Two-tier fosters divisionsThe two-tier system is more like “four tiers,” noted Buddy Howard, a leader of the fight against the lockout. Not only do new hires start at a lower wage, the company changed the pay level for numerous jobs, he said. Some jobs that were considered level seven, for example, are now level five so that some new hires are paid $5 to $6 an hour less.
“They use it as a shell game saying it’s all or nothing and claiming ‘at least we’re creating jobs,’” Drake Custer said in a phone interview. Custer, a syrup refinery operator at Roquette, is vice president of Local 48G of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union, which organized workers at the plant.
Like the two-tier system at the auto factories, Custer said, “the new tiers at Roquette are permanent. The new hires will never earn the same wages we do.”
“It’s a way the bosses create dissension in the ranks and pit workers against each other. It’s a global thing,” Custer said. “The guy next to me says ‘Why should I work as hard when the guy next to me is making more money.’ It’s another battle for us to encourage new employees to become union members because they already feel like they’ve gotten a raw deal.”
“I think the two tier is meant to keep us at each other instead of seeing who the real enemy is,” he added.
“The unions need to keep fighting for decent benefits and safe working conditions,” said Oshkosh worker Forster. “Seeing what the companies do when you have a union, can you imagine how it is for people without one?”
“Since I’ve been working here for just a year, I get lower pay and no benefits,” Aldrich Grandy, a freight elevator operator at a midtown Manhattan office building, told the Militant. “I’m just glad to have a job.”
“More and more it’s just two classes, the rich and the poor,” Grandy said. “What I would really like to see is for working people to band together and fight for our rights.”