The UAW in Peril
It’s unfortunate that people have criticized UAW (United Auto Workers) president Ron Gettlefinger for declaring that, despite the massive concessions his union had already made (and there have been some staggering givebacks), he was willing to renegotiate existing contracts with the automakers—including agreeing to provisions that would result in layoffs—if it would insure that the Big Three and what remains of the UAW could avoid ruination. Gettlefinger has been mischaracterized as a “sell-out,” a “dupe,” a “traitor”. . . and worse.
It must be nice to sit on the sidelines and glibly second-guess a union advocate who is, literally, fighting for his life. A union advocate whose organization is under siege, simultaneously, from (drum roll, please) foreign competitors, the media, the Congress, auto company executives, Wall Street bankers, environmentalists, libertarians, the weakest U.S. economy in 75 years, and his own demoralized membership.
Unlike academicians and labor dialecticians, Gettlefinger didn’t have the luxury of adhering to principle or rejoicing in theoretical ifs and maybes. Unfortunately, he’s studied the companies’ books and knows how dire the situation is. During his testimony on December 5, Gettlefinger reminded House members that, in 1979, GM employed well over 400,000 UAW members. Today, that figure is 63,000.
The nightmare scenario for the UAW went something like this: Congress fails to agree on a rescue package; the Big Three go bankrupt and tumble, one after another, like corporate dominoes. While the UAW is decimated, the automakers regroup, leave Detroit and relocate in the South, where low wages, lax workplace and environmental rules prevail, and organized labor in the United States is dealt a crushing, near-fatal blow. In this scenario, the bad guys win, the standard of living is lowered, the American workforce inches closer to resembling a glorified Third World ensemble.
Beyond the business-as-usual stuff, anyone who watched the congressional hearings couldn’t help being struck by the extent to which both the auto executives and union leadership were berated and ridiculed by committee members who seemed to relish the opportunity to poke these supplicants with a rhetorical sharp stick. It was brutal.
Besides the obvious question of where were these raised hackles when Wall Street bankers came calling, hat in hand, asking not for a paltry $35 billion but a whopping $700 billion, it also demonstrates how much institutionalized animosity there is for the car companies and the union affiliated with them. These politicians appeared to genuinely despise Detroit and all it stands for.
The Big Three were gleefully reminded of every screw-up they ever made. You saw some of these back-bench politicians, guys who rarely make it into the limelight, now delighting in hammering the auto execs on national TV for having spent tens of million of dollars resisting any mandatory improvements in safety features, smog equipment or gas mileage.
Not that the automakers don’t deserve the criticism; they’ve obviously earned it. But it was the self-righteousness and condescension coming off these politicians like flop-sweat off bad actors that made it so offensive. And it wasn’t just the companies who were being ravaged. The media have roundly criticized the UAW for (gasp!) daring to provide its members with a middle-class living.
Apparently, while the United States has found a way to collectively “forgive” Russia, China and Vietnam, once our avowed blood enemies, we’re not even close to forgiving Detroit’s automakers for the sins of the past.
But for the UAW there was always another nightmare scenario looming beside the one just mentioned, and it went like this: Having no realistic alternative, the UAW capitulates. It does what it’s told. With virtually zero room to move, the union is more or less forced to recast itself in an image palatable to the bankers, anti-union House and Senate members, and “low information” American taxpayer who now have the union’s destiny in their hands.
In other words, the UAW morphs into an entity no way resembling the forceful, dynamic labor union it once was. In this scenario, the rescue package put together by Congress (albeit smaller than was requested) turns out to be sufficient. It succeeds. The Big Three slowly dig themselves out of the hole and, in time, begin making profits again. Detroit is saved.
In this scenario, the union is so severely damaged, it never recovers. Not only does it never recover, it never even regains the modicum of hopefulness and self-confidence necessary to “dream” about recovering. The only option the UAW had in this matter was choosing between two nightmares. It’s a stunning blow to organized labor.
DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright and writer, was a former labor rep. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org