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The Late, Great UAW

By now, most people know that Detroit’s beleaguered automakers were able to squeeze out an eleventh hour, multi-billion dollar loan package from the U.S  government.  But how many are aware that, as part of the deal, the United Auto Workers (UAW) were required to forfeit their right to strike?

It’s true.  According to a filing by the Securities Exchange Commission, the Treasury Department may legally declare GM and Chrysler to be in default and revoke the nearly $18 billion in loans the companies received, if “any labor union or collective bargaining unit shall engage in a strike or other work stoppage.”  The money boys are watching this deal very carefully, and won’t let anything as obnoxious as an employee shutdown interfere with these loans being paid back

If, as expected, the terms are approved by the UAW’s hapless 140,000 autoworkers, this no-strike stipulation would remain in effect until the companies clear their debts.  And because those billions won’t be paid back before the UAW’s 2011 contract negotiations begin, it means the union will face the company with zero bargaining power.  Take away a union’s right to strike—its right to withhold its labor as a last resort—and you’ve taken away its only weapon.

Worse, this no-strike agreement comes on the heels of the UAW’s already anticipated massive layoffs and huge cuts in wages, benefits and work restrictions—reductions that are intended to bring these union contracts in line with the wages, benefits and working conditions generally provided to non-union workers.  How bizarre is that?

Typically, the exact opposite used to occur.  In order to discourage employees from flirting with a union, companies would offer very close to the same goodies a union shop provided its members.  Keep your workers happy, keep ‘em well compensated, and they’ll have no reason to bring in a union.  That was the rationale.

Of course, that meant you had non-union employees (“free riders”) profiting from organized labor’s formidable presence in the economy without having to join up, put their butts on the line, or pay monthly dues.  While it was a constant source of heartburn to organized labor that so many of these yokels were either too naïve or too dense to realize they weren’t making it “on their own,” the net effect was beneficial to all working people.  So be it.

What we’re witnessing today is a world turned upside down.  We now have union workers being asked to emulate non-union workers.  Union workers being asked to give back everything they fought for.  And these aren’t just any old union workers; these are members of the vaunted UAW, which was once regarded as the greatest union in the United States.

It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that, during the 1960s and 1970s, rank-and-file union members across the nation believed that anything worth getting first had to emanate from the UAW.  That’s how prestigious they were, the gold standard, plain and simple.  Established in 1935 (the same year the landmark Wagner Act went into effect) the UAW was the first big-time union to implement across-the-board overtime premiums, paid vacations, health care, personal holidays and job safety language.

Admittedly, it’s easy to blame current UAW president Ron Gettlefinger (whom labor radicals have called everything from “sellout” to “traitor” to “management dupe”) for having put the union in this humiliating position.  But the closer you examine the trajectory of the problem, the more complicated, confounding, and frustrating it becomes.

First, you have the immutable, but stubbornly under-acknowledged First Law of Labor Relations, which states:  As much as unions like having generous bosses, understanding bosses, enlightened bosses—what they need, more than anything, are smart bosses.  Bosses smart enough to make sure their businesses remain viable.

In that regard it’s clear that Detroit’s executives weren’t near smart enough.  Obviously, they had the technological expertise to design a sleek, efficient, and economical car,  and just as obviously, the American worker is capable of assembling one.  Indeed, Japanese and German carmakers have seen fit to have American workers assemble their products, albeit in low-wage, non-union states such as Alabama and Tennessee.

What happened was more like a Greek Tragedy than an economic downturn.  In a word, the UAW fell victim to Detroit’s hubris.  While union workers will gladly build any vehicle—car, truck, van or tank—you ask them to, they don’t get to decide what that vehicle will be.  That’s their bosses’ decision.

And for the last several decades, Detroit’s decisions have been woefully short-sighted.  Instead of anticipating or following customer demands, auto executives believed they could dictate them.  Because long-term thinking required planning and discipline, they went after the glitzy, short-term score.  Moreover, these bosses got locked into some time-warp where they thought they deserved to be treated like princes.  And that mindset ultimately sank Detroit.

Unfortunately, it sank the UAW along with it.  When a union lowers its wages, benefits and working conditions to non-union levels, and then voluntarily relinquishes its right to strike as the price of doing business, it’s hard to consider that entity a “union.”

Again, you can’t pin this calamity on UAW leadership.  The problem goes way beyond that.  Blaming some recent union decisions for this mess is like blaming backyard barbecues for global warming.  In truth, the UAW’s only “crime”—stretching back some 70 years—was believing that America’s working people could belong to the middle-class.

But that’s history.  In the wake of the 20-year, post-Reagan, worldwide money-grab, the UAW has been left mortally wounded. And all we can do is hoist a glass, and lament the passing of a great American institution.  Let’s leave it at that.

DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright (“Larva Boy,” “Borneo Bob”) and writer, was a former labor union rep.  He can be reached at dmacaray@earthlink.net

 

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David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book is How To Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows.  He can be reached at dmacaray@gmail.com

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