Car workers in the US are entering their fourth week of all-out strike action as we go to press. The largest auto strike since 2007 is solid so far. In fact the strikers have elicited solidarity action from Mexican GM workers, and have now been joined by others in South Korea.

On 16 September, 48,000 workers walked out of 33 assembly plants across the Mid-West and Southern states.

Their grievances are legion and they are demanding the end of many practices that have crept in through give-backs over the past decade, such as extortionate healthcare costs, lower pay and full contracts for “temps” and new hires, decent cost of living increases (COLA), cuts to unemployment supplements and the re-opening of four closed plants.

However, their union, the United Auto Workers, are refusing to tell workers what their actual negotiating demands are or how the talks are progressing. Nor are they looking to spread the action.

Fellow UAW workers from Ford and Fiat-Chrysler are regular visitors to the picket lines, mindful that a victory for their GM sisters and brothers would blow a hole through the industry’s anti-worker practices. Despite the fact that they have almost identical needs and demands and an industry-wide walkout would massively up the stakes, they are being strictly told to stay at work.

Bureaucracy and the rank and file

The UAW officials who are jealously guarding their control of the dispute are as corrupt as they come. Secretary Gary Casteel and Treasurer Danny Trull are currently under investigation over $1 million allegedly spent on luxuries for UAW officials, while President Gary Jones is on $5,000 a week.

The Wall Street Journal surmises that the real issue for these officials is to ensure that a new GM battery plant, essential for the rollout of a new generation of electric cars, is unionised. But what is the point of unionisation if the end-result is erosion of workers’ rights and pay?

Meanwhile the strikers, many of whom have multiple family members involved in the dispute, have only just received their first weekly strike pay of £250, barely enough to keep the wolf from the door. Contrast this with the $35 billion profits GM has accumulated over the past three years and the $800 million strike fund the union is sitting on, and one can see the urgent need for the rank and file to take control.

Workers should elect strike committees in every factory and link them together in a nationwide combine to formulate their own concrete demands, pressing the union officials to release weekly reports on the negotiations and open up the talks to striking representatives. They should also send delegations to neighbouring Ford, Chrysler and other car plants and parts factories to argue for solidarity action.

In this their Mexican counterparts in GM’s Silao plant, who organised an overtime ban to stop the company offsetting the effects of the strike by moving production south of the border, have nobly assisted them. Five Mexican workers have been sacked as a result; their reinstatement should form part of the US workers’ demands.

At the same time, South Korean GM workers, organised in the Korean Metal Workers Union, have also begun a strike in demand of a 5.7 per cent pay rise. Asian and Latin American workers earn a fraction of the US workers’ pay, which is why globalisation has led to the closure of so many US factories. The officials won’t unite the strikes. But cross-border rank and file combines can do that. US workers should demand the levelling up of pay and conditions worldwide.

This strike has the potential of turning the tide in US labour relations. But if left in the hands of the bureaucrats, it will at best end in a compromise that will be eroded within years, if not months. On the other hand, if the rank and file, who have already shown courage and initiative, take control, it can mark the start of a new era, not only in the US but in Mexico, South Korea and beyond.