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What's Good for GM is Good for America?

Walter and Me (and You)

by RICHARD RHAMES

“… Detroit has redirected decades of consumer frustration with American automakers for their lackluster designs and poor quality into widespread resentment of rank-and-file auto workers for their company-paid health care and pensions. The automakers have tapped into middle-America’s deep-seated anxiety and insecurity with a not-so-subtle message: ‘If you don’t have a pension or any hint of job security, why should they?’”

Labor Notes, 11/19/08

It looks like the federal government won’t be rolling any of that near-trillion dollar bailout money to auto industry workers any time soon. There’s a warm bipartisan consensus that the real money needs to go to banksters, financial flim-flammers, and others who have seen neither blast furnace, nor paint booth. 

The allegedly “liberal” Washington Post sternly warned lawmakers (11/8/08) that any loans to Detroit should war on workers. “Under court direction,” the Post maintained, “the firms (should) trim wages and benefits that far exceed those of non-union competitors, (and) reduce the burden (sic) of pension payments, which stands at $90 billion over the next decade….”

Suddenly, when it looked as though a few billion public dollars might be diverted away from tony suites to help sustain blue-collar types making a bargained-for living wage, responsible political/ media opinion recoiled in horror. The AP  (11/18)  reports rapid-onset “Bailout fatigue” in the congress. Even though candidates running as Democrats were recently elected in greater numbers than dead-ender Republicans, the announced mantra is  now “continuity,” not change. Thus, if Republicans are opposed to something —like, say, living wages and unions — even if they lack the votes to prevail — they should get their way. So, it’s not at all clear that things will improve in the new year, even after the Ds start sharing their “power” with repudiated Rs. So much for Change.

Elite opinion sees Detroit as a “dinosaur” whose “day of reckoning” is at hand, according to the AP, which also quoted Mitch McConnell (R-Ky) as saying that , “The silence from the Democratic rank and file on this matter has been deafening.” There’s great enthusiasm for going after the wage and benefit packages gained by the United Auto Workers, and getting yet another round of “concessions” from its almost 400,000 members. 

UAW President Ron Gettelfinger had a few thoughts on the matter, which the AP (surprisingly) printed. Noting the serial concessions already made, including the fratricidal two-tiered wage system agreed to just last year, “Gettelfinger bristled at calls for further sacrifices by his members.”

“Let’s go to AIG,” he said, “Bear Stearns, active and retired workers: Did anyone go in and ask them to give back wages and benefit levels?…What about the bond traders? Did anyone ask them? … Why should the UAW be any different?” 

Brother Gettelfinger, of course, understands why the UAW is being targeted. Born of militant struggle, the union gained something like economic stability for its members —and others — through its power and its willingness to struggle. But the national guaranteed annual wage, government provided pensions and health care that former president Walter Reuther envisioned were long ago “pragmatically” bargained away. The UAW settled for living wages, with health care and reliable pension benefits as merely part of their employer-based compensation package. That worked for a while, and with the UAW as a model, workers in other sectors had their boats pulled forward by the Detroit oarsmen toiling, between contract negotiations, in what Reuther himself called their “gold-plated sweatshops.” 

But the notoriously short-sighted executives at the commanding heights of US industry and commerce have long been opposed to economic rights for workers. In time they re-wrote the rules of the road. Deindustrializing the nation, union-busting, and pushing workers over the side became Job One. The business press exulted as even the once mighty UAW surrendered again and again. GM and the rest spun off their parts plants as non-union “enterprises” with UAW acquiescence in the name of “competitiveness” and “team play.” Today, starting pay at one of these shops is $14.50, about half the union scale. 

Fun Fact: A “living wage” in southern Maine (no internet, no cable, no eating in restaurants, 5 year old car, basic phone service) is over $16 per hour.  

Writing in Labor Notes, Mark Brenner and Jane Slaughter ask, “What will America look like if most workers earn Wal-Mart, instead of General Motors wages?” We’re well on our way to finding out of course. 

To the UAW’s credit, it has lately rediscovered Reuther’s dream of national health insurance. According to Labor Notes, in return for its $1 billion in concessions last time, the union received a pledge from the Big Three to “pursue universal coverage” in Washington. Brenner /  Slaughter point out that, “Canada’s single-payer system… (saves money) and (so) has spared most Ford and GM plants north of the border from the ax.” 

Yet when GM’s CEO offered testimony to congress at a June hearing on the health care crisis, he never mentioned “universal coverage.” US business interests have long preferred to maintain the increasingly disastrous “private” employer-based health insurance regime. It’s a powerful, life-or-death weapon to be wielded against employees. GM is, like most business, more concerned with waging class war than with the long-term viability of American  industry. 

If the US has an industrial future, Detroit’s workers and legacy infrastructure must play a role. The UAW, and leaders like Walter Reuther had a vision of a tooled-up America, with human and economic rights for all. They labored toward a time when their members could live in dignity, based on building transportation machines. The bosses at GM and the rest took the industry into the tank, building Supremely Untenable Vehicles (SUVs).

In these post-rational, post-literate, post-industrial, “post-partisan,” post-carbon times, it’s an open question whether simple dignity is on-the-table any longer. But if it is, Reuther’s roadmap including social insurance, and a democratized work-life is the way forward — whether GM likes it or not.

RICHARD RHAMES is a dirt-farmer in Biddeford, Maine (just north of the Kennebunkport town line).