Nobody would work under such conditions. Nobody
should. Everybody would stand up. Everybody would be outraged. If you
had a union, they would make sure it was set right, right away. This
type of arbitrary discrimination can’t happen, not here in America. But
last month, at a local manufacturing plant, it did happen, and nobody
even noticed, or nobody cared. Or maybe they were too scared of losing
their own jobs to sound the alarm.
Magna International, the company that acquired
New Process Gear from Chrysler in 2002, reached a new contract
agreement last month with the United Auto Workers Local 624, who
represent nearly 2,500 workers at their East Syracuse plant. The deal
called for a $9-per-hour pay cut. It ended the long tradition of a
fixed benefit pension plan. The contract contained no good news for
working people: It was full of nothing but givebacks.
Using the threat of closing the plant, the
manufacturer squeezed concessions out of the union and the workforce.
In the end the UAW made the case to its members that this was the best
deal they could get, and the workers signed on, approving the agreement
on Feb. 21 by a vote of 3-to-1. At least the plant didn’t close.
Most news coverage focused on the tough choices
facing workers, some of whom had been offered a buyout or other offers
it would take an accountant to decipher. A Post-Standard
editorial praised the agreement as “a remarkable feat of negotiation.”
It wasn’t until one brave soul wrote a letter to the Sunday paper that
a dirty little secret emerged: In the horse trading that took place,
the health benefits of one group of union members—unmarried domestic
partners—was quietly bargained away.
Beginning next month, life partners of workers
at the Magna plant will no longer have paid health benefits. Sounds a
bit strange that a Canadian company would do such a thing, but that’s
exactly what they did. “It’s just something that fell off the table,”
said one union guy who didn’t want his name in print.
No one at the company returned a call seeking
comment on how much they will save by doing this. In the end it isn’t
about the money saved, but who will pay. It is a stain on the
reputation of a union that helped create the middle class in this
community to have accepted this agreement.
I know that no one in the room was proud of it.
It’s just a reflection, they say, of their weakened position in the
market. But it’s also—let’s face it—a reflection of the failure of
unions to diversify their bargaining teams. No one could dispute that
Magna was going to get concessions. Obviously the union members who
voted agreed that this was a deal with the devil, but the best deal
they were going to get.
But here’s the thing—all the other “givebacks”
were based on shared pain. The pension reductions affected everyone,
according to seniority. The wage reductions affected everyone, based on
pay grade. The health care benefits were maintained for married
families and eliminated for non-married families, gay or straight.
Married people, all of whom, by law, must pass for straight, keep their
families covered. The rest of us better take our vitamins.
In the city of Syracuse, lawyers could make a
case that such a contract would be illegal. A city ordinance prohibits
employers from engaging in this kind of discrimination. That’s one of
the reasons Syracuse University employees can get health care for their
sweethearts. But Magna’s New Process Gear plant operates in the town of
DeWitt. That makes it legal.
It still smells to high heaven. New Process
claims millions each year in Empire Zone tax credits ($3.7 million in
2006), more than any other company in Onondaga County. I wonder if the
state is concerned about subsidizing discrimination. I wonder if
taxpayers would like to know that they are helping a transnational
company kick their neighbors off the health care plan.
There used to be a principle known as
solidarity. There used to be a notion that we sink or swim together.
That seems to have been lost in the shuffle. When times are toughest,
people band together. In the relatively prosperous times we occupy, it
seems easy to scare people into abandoning their neighbor. Seems all
you have to do is shout “globalization” and people start figuring who
they should toss from the lifeboat.
If I had to vote on that contract I don’t know
what I would have done. Those who went to vote may not even have been
informed of the change in the health plan eligibility. Everyone I’ve
spoken to at the plant says it wasn’t brought up in the meetings held
before the vote. If it was mentioned, I wonder if it would have made a
difference. Fear of losing your job makes it easier to justify a deal
that does in your neighbor. Divide and conquer, in the ugliest way
possible. Out of 2,500 workers, how many do you think are living with
someone they love but are not married to?
No one spoke up while a good number of their
co-workers were forced to go home to their loved ones and tell them
that they no longer had health care. I dare say that if the union told
them to go home and tell their kids they had no more health insurance,
that contract would not have passed.
But let’s be real—a lot of the people getting
thrown out of the health care plan are gay anyway, right? And can they
speak up openly at union meetings? Do they think anyone will care? You
can say that this action isn’t against gay people. Straight couples who
are not married will also lose their benefits. Unless they get married.
Which gay people, of course, can’t do.
By the way, Magna recently reported their sales
and profit figures for 2007. Sales grew by 8 percent last year, to
$26.1 billion. Profit rose to $663 million, an increase of $202 million
over the previous year. Not a bad haul, but apparently not quite
Read Ed Griffin-Nolan’s commentary weekly in the Syracuse New Times and online at www.syracusenewtimes.com