The crisis in the auto industry is about many things: the possible collapse of General Motors, Detroit gas guzzlers, auto emission standards, the environment, and the need for mass transportation, among others. At the centre of it all, however, is the struggle between management and the workers, that is, between capital and labour....
New York Times columnist Joe Nocera argued that bankruptcy would be too long and slow a process to save the industry. He suggested that President-Elect Barack Obama create an auto Tsar... to negotiate a new deal in auto. What would that deal look like? “It needs to dramatically reduce its legacy benefits, perhaps even eliminating health care benefits for union retirees. It needs to close plants. It needs to pay its workers what Toyota workers are paid in the United States — and not a penny more."
Nocera points back to the Chrysler Bailout of 1979 when the Federal government succeeded in pressuring the United Auto Workers (UAW) union to accept concessions. President Jimmy Carter and the US Congress, working with GM and the UAW, negotiated the downsizing of the company from almost 100,000 to just 57,000 jobs. Black workers were particularly hard hit because so many Chrysler plants were in Detroit. The agreement broke the Big Three contract, leaving Chrysler workers $3.00 an hour behind workers at the other two. The Chrysler Bailout is a kind of a model for what the business class has in mind this time, only now they want to drive the workers much further back.
The Big Three have gone to Washington to ask the government for a bailout to save the industry. Ron Gettelfinger, President of the UAW, has gone along with the CEOs... But he must understand that when automakers talk about saving the industry they mean plant closings, wage cuts, and slashing of benefits.
The US government, as the highest political expression of capital's power, will come to the aid of the auto industry — meaning aiding the auto companies to break one of the last strongholds of the old industrial unionism. To America's rich and powerful, to save the auto industry means to save its profitability. It has nothing to do with saving jobs, workers or their communities.
What's needed at this point are: First, a plan that saves auto workers' jobs and communities. Second, a movement to fight for that plan.
Frank Hammer, a past president and chairperson of UAW Local 909 in Warren, Michigan, has suggested an action plan. He calls for an emergency protest. "The leadership should organize a car caravan around the headquarters of the Detroit Three or, with the help of the AFL-CIO, organize a caravan to Washington, DC or even Wall Street.
“There's no guarantee to what we could achieve, but we should nevertheless proclaim, 'Not without a fight!'.”
UAW members need to go to Washington with more than their hands out; they need to put forward an alternative plan for the industry. Some longtime UAW activists have begun to put forward ...an alternative to the notion that the bailout should be a bludgeon to be used against workers.
Jerry Tucker, for example, has argued that the auto crisis demonstrates the necessity and opportunity to create a national health care program such as Canada has had for some time. Retired auto worker activist Dianne Feeley argues that we could "convert the excess plants in the auto parts sector to useful green jobs. We need to create solar, wind and geothermal energy. Axle plants, for example, can be converted to produce wind turbines, a product not currently made in the United States." These suggestions represent the beginning of a program for the auto industry that could save workers' jobs and communities.
a plan for all
President-Elect Barack Obama said in his press conference on 24 November that the auto industry executive should come back to the new Congress and his administration with a plan. But shouldn't the UAW and the auto workers – unions and workers who worked for Obama – come back with their own plan as well?
Shouldn't the American people come back to Congress with their plan too?
And if we did appear in Congress, wouldn't we say, "Yes, of course, you can use some of my tax money to save these jobs. But if we put up the money, then we want ownership in these companies, and a voice, and a vote. If 'We the People' put up the money and take ownership of these companies, then we want a citizens advisory council made up of auto workers – engineers, technicians, skilled and unskilled workers – as well as consumers, and environmentalists to run the company."
What's happening to autoworkers today happened to steelworkers a few decades ago, and even groups as apparently secure as health and hospital workers can expect to see similar industrial challenges – and the demand that workers pay for the problems – coming in the future.
If the auto companies and the government negotiate a bailout that drives the UAW and its members back into the past, we will be going back with them.
Everyone's job, everyone's wages, everyone's health care and pension is at stake in this. We need to begin to fight back and there isn't a moment to lose.
This article has been abridged from a longer article at http://www.solidarity-us.org/autocrisis