The Delphi Incident

by DAVID MACARAY

Salaried, white-collar, non-union employees of Delphi (the former General Motors-owned auto parts conglomerate), in Warren, Ohio, were recently treated to a bitterly cruel lesson in the benefits of belonging to a labor union.

As part of GM’s government-supervised bankruptcy, Delphi’s salaried workers were stunned to learn that a union contract trumped all that touchy-feely “team building” gibberish they’d been fed over the years.  It was revealed that, while Delphi’s union members would be receiving their full pensions, a significant percentage of Delphi’s white-collar employees would be receiving only partial ones.

Although the PBGC (Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation), by law, insures company pension plans, PBCG payouts are tricky; they’re arranged in such a manner that maximum “caps,” based on complicated formulas that take into account an employee’s age and level of benefits, come into play.  Under the PBGC, older workers do far better than younger ones.  And in regard to the Delphi deal, those employees caught in the middle—in their fifties, with many years of service, but too “young” to retire—were hit the hardest.

No one on labor’s side is gloating or rejoicing.  Not only did the unions who represent the workers—United Auto Workers, United Steelworkers, International Union of Electrical Workers—not want to see Delphi’s salaried employees get shafted, the union’s legal team has offered to help recover what’s coming to them.   Which is ironic, given how unlikely it would have been for this salaried, white-collar “tribe” to have reacted similarly had the shoe been on the other foot.

Not to sound cynical, but people need to be reminded of the stark fact that “muscle,” more than any other factor, is what gets things done—even meritorious things.  Lots of stuff is capable of rousing people’s interest, but it takes muscle (or the perception of it) to close deals.  Politicians, soldiers, entertainment agents and labor union reps know this better than most.

The notion that important things get done simply because they’re the “right thing to do,” is a bit naïve.  Take the Civil Rights Acts of 1964, for instance.  While getting that legislation passed was unquestionably the “right” thing to do, it wasn’t passed on the basis of its intrinsic merits; rather, it was passed as the result of deal-making, arm-twisting, lavish promises, trade-offs, and serious threats from people with muscle.

More recently, the same dynamic was seen in the success of the so-called “surge” in Iraq.  The reason the surge worked wasn’t because America sent in more soldiers or different soldiers or better soldiers, or because we finally convinced recalcitrant Iraqis to jump on the Democracy bandwagon; rather, it worked because the U.S. offered to pay approximately 750,000 Sunni insurgents not to fight.  It worked because these hold-out Sunnis had sufficient muscle to insist that they get paid….or else.

And the “or else” was simply too gruesome for the military command to contemplate.  So the American taxpayer put these Sunni insurgents on the payroll.  And that’s how the surge succeeded.  Mind you, there’s no shame in using money to get a dirty job done.  There’s no shame in paying your way to success—paying your way to peace, paying your way to prosperity—so long as you don’t pretend that you succeeded by other, more noble means.

Which brings us to organized labor, which isn’t complicated.  Unions were formed by working people who shared a common goal; they coalesced by attracting people with similar needs and skills, people facing similar obstacles, and they flourished only when they reached a critical mass.  Simple as that.

A thousand random janitors will forever be at the mercy of a pitiless market, with the low bidder always getting hired, and wages being driven inexorably downward.  But a thousand janitors who are organized, who belong to a collective, who refuse to work for less than a decent minimum wage?  That’s another story.

The reason labor has lost so much of its influence over the last thirty years isn’t because America shifted ideological gears, or because working people suddenly decided to go it alone—decided to avoid workers’ collectives, to turn away from the most desirable, safe and well-paid jobs in the community and go with the crappy ones instead.

Rather, labor lost its influence because (1) the country abandoned its core manufacturing sectors, (2) the Republican party, led by Ronald Reagan, launched a furious attack on unions at a time when, arguably, they were most vulnerable, and (3) deregulation of trucking made it feasible for businesses to move to anti-union, right-to-work states.  All of this—coupled with the dread Rise of the Outside Contractor—resulted in labor’s membership rolls plummeting.  There were other causes, but these were the critical ones.

And with that staggering drop in membership, labor unions lost the patronage of everyone who mattered:  the politicians, the academic wonks and the media outlets who regularly courted them.  When you have the whiskers to get 200,000 workers in a major industry to walk off the job, people tend to listen to you.  Conversely, when you have nothing to back up your threats except empty saber rattling and some old press clippings, people tend to brush you off.

Thus, the Delphi incident is both a cautionary tale underscoring the importance of muscle, and an exercise in nostalgia, harking back to a time when labor unions guaranteed working people a place at the table.  And even though the “right thing to do” was to give those salaried Delphi employees the pensions they deserved, it didn’t happen.  It didn’t happen because they weren’t union members.

DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright, is the author of “It’s Never Been Easy:  Essays on Modern Labor”. He can be reached at dmacaray@earthlink.net

 

David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book is “Nightshift: 270 Factory Stories.” He can be reached at dmacaray@gmail.com

Like What You’ve Read? Support CounterPunch
August 03, 2015
Joseph Mangano – Janette D. Sherman
The Atomic Era Turns 70, as Nuclear Hazards Endure
Nelson Valdes
An Internet Legend: the Pope, Fidel and the Black President
Robert Hunziker
The Perfectly Nasty Ocean Storm
Jack Dresser
The Case of Alison Weir: Two Palestinian Solidarity Organizations Borrow from Joe McCarthy’s Playbook
Ahmad Moussa
Incinerating Palestinian Children
Greg Felton
Greece Succumbs to Imperialist Banksterism
Binoy Kampmark
Stalling the Trans-Pacific Partnership: the Failure of the Hawai’i Talks
Ted Rall
My Letter to Nick Goldberg of the LA Times
Mark Weisbrot
New Greek Bailout Increases the Possibility of Grexit
Jose Martinez
Black/Hispanic/Women: a Leadership Crisis
Victor Grossman
German Know-Nothings Today
Patrick Walker
We’re Not Sandernistas: Reinventing the Wheels of Bernie’s Bandwagon
Norman Pollack
Moral Consequences of War: America’s Hegemonic Thirst
Ralph Nader
Republicans Support Massive Tax Evasion by Starving IRS Budget
Alexander Reid Ross
Colonial Pride and the Killing of Cecil the Lion
Suhayb Ahmed
What’s Happening in Britain: Jeremy Corbyn and the Future of the Labour Party
Weekend Edition
July 31-33, 2015
Jeffrey St. Clair
Bernie and the Sandernistas: Into the Void
John Pilger
Julian Assange: the Untold Story of an Epic Struggle for Justice
Roberto J. González – David Price
Remaking the Human Terrain: The US Military’s Continuing Quest to Commandeer Culture
Lawrence Ware
Bernie Sanders’ Race Problem
Andrew Levine
The Logic of Illlogic: Narrow Self-Interest Keeps Israel’s “Existential Threats” Alive
ANDRE VLTCHEK
Kos, Bodrum, Desperate Refugees and a Dying Child
Paul Street
“That’s Politics”: the Sandernistas on the Master’s Schedule
Ted Rall
How the LAPD Conspired to Get Me Fired from the LA Times
Mike Whitney
Power-Mad Erdogan Launches War in Attempt to Become Turkey’s Supreme Leader
Ellen Brown
The Greek Coup: Liquidity as a Weapon of Coercion
Stephen Lendman
Russia Challenges America’s Orwellian NED
Will Parrish
The Politics of California’s Water System
John Wight
The Murder of Ali Saad Dawabsha, a Palestinian Infant Burned Alive by Israeli Terrorists
Jeffrey Blankfort
Leading Bibi’s Army in the War for Washington
Mary Lou Singleton
Gender, Patriarchy, and All That Jazz
Robert Fantina
Israeli Missteps Take a Toll
Pete Dolack
Speculators Circling Puerto Rico Latest Mode of Colonialism
Ron Jacobs
Spying on Black Writers: the FB Eye Blues
Paul Buhle
The Leftwing Seventies?
Binoy Kampmark
The TPP Trade Deal: of Sovereignty and Secrecy
David Swanson
Vietnam, Fifty Years After Defeating the US
Robert Hunziker
Human-Made Evolution
Shamus Cooke
Why Obama’s “Safe Zone” in Syria Will Inflame the War Zone
David Rosen
Hillary Clinton: Learn From Your Sisters
Sam Husseini
How #AllLivesMatter and #BlackLivesMatter Can Devalue Life
Shepherd Bliss
Why I Support Bernie Sanders for President
Louis Proyect
Manufacturing Denial
Howard Lisnoff
The Wrong Argument
Tracey Harris
Living Tiny: a Richer and More Sustainable Future