Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
Support Our Annual Fund Drive! CounterPunch is entirely supported by our readers. Your donations pay for our small staff, tiny office, writers, designers, techies, bandwidth and servers. We don’t owe anything to advertisers, foundations, one-percenters or political parties. You are our only safety net. Please make a tax-deductible donation today.
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

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).

 

 

 

 

 

RICHARD RHAMES is a dirt-farmer in Biddeford, Maine (just north of the Kennebunkport town line). He can be reached at: rrhames@xpressamerica.net

More articles by:

2016 Fund Drive
Smart. Fierce. Uncompromised. Support CounterPunch Now!

  • cp-store
  • donate paypal

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

Weekend Edition
September 30, 2016
Friday - Sunday
Henry Giroux
Thinking Dangerously in the Age of Normalized Ignorance
Stanley L. Cohen
Israel and Academic Freedom: a Closed Book
Paul Craig Roberts – Michael Hudson
Can Russia Learn From Brazil’s Fate? 
Andrew Levine
A Putrid Election: the Horserace as Farce
Mike Whitney
The Biggest Heist in Human History
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: the Sick Blue Line
Rob Urie
The Twilight of the Leisure Class
Vijay Prashad
In a Hall of Mirrors: Fear and Dislike at the Polls
Alexander Cockburn
The Man Who Built Clinton World
John Wight
Who Will Save Us From America?
Pepe Escobar
Afghanistan; It’s the Heroin, Stupid
W. T. Whitney
When Women’s Lives Don’t Matter
Julian Vigo
“Ooops, I Did It Again”: How the BBC Funnels Stories for Financial Gain
Howard Lisnoff
What was Missing From The Nation’s Interview with Bernie Sanders
Jeremy Brecher
Dakota Access Pipeline and the Future of American Labor
Binoy Kampmark
Pictures Left Incomplete: MH17 and the Joint Investigation Team
Andrew Kahn
Nader Gave Us Bush? Hillary Could Give Us Trump
Steve Horn
Obama Weakens Endangered Species Act
Dave Lindorff
US Propaganda Campaign to Demonize Russia in Full Gear over One-Sided Dutch/Aussie Report on Flight 17 Downing
John W. Whitehead
Uncomfortable Truths You Won’t Hear From the Presidential Candidates
Ramzy Baroud
Shimon Peres: Israel’s Nuclear Man
Brandon Jordan
The Battle for Mercosur
Murray Dobbin
A Globalization Wake-Up Call
Jesse Ventura
Corrupted Science: the DEA and Marijuana
Richard W. Behan
Installing a President by Force: Hillary Clinton and Our Moribund Democracy
Andrew Stewart
The Democratic Plot to Privatize Social Security
Daniel Borgstrom
On the Streets of Oakland, Expressing Solidarity with Charlotte
Marjorie Cohn
President Obama: ‘Patron’ of the Israeli Occupation
Norman Pollack
The “Self-Hating” Jew: A Critique
David Rosen
The Living Body & the Ecological Crisis
Joseph Natoli
Thoughtcrimes and Stupidspeak: Our Assault Against Words
Ron Jacobs
A Cycle of Death Underscored by Greed and a Lust for Power
Uri Avnery
Abu Mazen’s Balance Sheet
Kim Nicolini
Long Drive Home
Louisa Willcox
Tribes Make History with Signing of Grizzly Bear Treaty
Art Martin
The Matrix Around the Next Bend: Facebook, Augmented Reality and the Podification of the Populace
Andre Vltchek
Failures of the Western Left
Ishmael Reed
Millennialism or Extinctionism?
Frances Madeson
Why It’s Time to Create a Cabinet-Level Dept. of Native Affairs
Laura Finley
Presidential Debate Recommendations
José Negroni
Mass Firings on Broadway Lead Singers to Push Back
Leticia Cortez
Entering the Historical Dissonance Surrounding Desafinados
Robert J. Burrowes
Gandhi: ‘My Life is My Message’
Charles R. Larson
Queen Lear? Deborah Levy’s “Hot Milk”
David Yearsley
Bring on the Nibelungen: If Wagner Scored the Debates
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail
[i]
[i]
[i]
[i]