Obama’s Fake Concern for Autoworkers and the 2009 Bailout

Image of President Obama at a desk on a phone.

Image by History in HD.

I want here to say a bit about four things: (1) what a disingenuous piece of work Barack “Trans Pacific Partnership” Obama is; (2) how gullible some left-identified folks can still be about Obama’s sorry neoliberal ass; (3) the real history of the 2009 federal US auto industry bailout; (4) what humanity really needs beyond a good wage and benefit outcome for autoworkers in their current strike against the Big Three US automobile firms.

Recently I saw some leftish folks who talk a lot about what they call “class struggle” approvingly post Obama’s Twitter/X comments on the United Auto Workers’ current partial strike against the nation’s Big Three automakers. Here’s what Obama said on Twitter, I mean on X:

Fourteen years ago, when the big three automakers were struggling to stay afloat, my administration and the American people stepped in to support them. So did the auto workers in the UAW who sacrificed pay and benefits to help get the companies back on their feet. Now that our carmakers are enjoying robust profits, it’s time to do right by those same workers so the industry can emerge more united and competitive than ever.

Leftish progressive labor people I know have expressed great admiration for that statement.

I question their praise. Sorry, my trade unionist friends, but it’s always time to “do right” by workers, not just when corporations are enjoying “robust profits”! Making decent living conditions for workers contingent on their employers’ profits is abject servility to the anarchy of capital – the very anarchy that is currently bringing humanity to the brink of potentially terminal environmental catastrophe, with the automobile industry a key contributor to the climate crisis.

Speaking of the anarchy of capital, notice what Obama gives as the reason to support increased pay and benefits for autoworkers. Not social justice and basic decency in and of itself. No, he backs these gains “so the industry can emerge more united and competitive than ever.”

“More united”? Unity between firms, workers, and bosses is corporatism, not labor progressivism. It sure isn’t working class struggle.

“More competitive than ever”? Competition is the inter-capitalist mode of production dynamic that drives endless expansion, boom, and bust, creating constant uncertainty, recurrent crisis, chaos and calamity for workers (the global and not just US-American) proletariat, humanity, and livable ecology.

What “industry” – the auto industry in general? No, the auto industry of one wealthy and powerful, arch-imperialist nation with 4.2% of the world’s population (but 20% of the world’s prisoners) – the United States.

Competitive against who? Against other global auto sectors that, if out-competed by the US auto industry, will lay off workers and slash wages and benefits abroad.

Competitive in what field of human endeavor? The manufacture of automobiles, critical vehicles of social and ecological ruin, genuine scourges on and wreckers’ of community, social solidarity, and environmental sustainability – critical fossil-capitalist contributors to the dark bourgeois project of turning the planet into a giant Greenhouse Gas Chamber. (Yes, there is movement towards greener electrical cars in the Big Three, but that’s part of what’s got the UAW upset since moving off the internal combustion engine means less production jobs.)

What about Obama’s historical narrative claiming that “the American people” – meaning his neoliberal Citigroup administration (something very different than “We the People”!) – saved the US-American branch of this hideous, anti-social, and eco-cidal industry? It is doubtful that the industry would have disappeared without the Obama auto bailout. That aside, the Obama “rescue” operation of Big Auto was not a pretty story. It was a plutocratic, state-capitalist atrocity: an egregious example of socialism for big corporations and heartless “market discipline” – capitalism and competition – for everybody else.

In 2008 steeply rising gas prices and the evaporation of credit dropped auto industry sales to a generational low. As cash flow dried up, the threat of collapse loomed over US carmakers and the dealers, workers, suppliers, communities that depended on them. To avert industry collapse, the incoming Obama administration instituted a multibillion-dollar bailout that traded a massive infusion of taxpayer dollars for a restructuring at General Motors and Chrysler (Ford was able to avoid restructuring). Under the terms of a US Treasury-run bankruptcy, 23 plants and 3 warehouses were closed, a large number of divisions were terminated, thousands of auto-workers were slashed from payrolls, and the nation missed an important opportunity to shift workers from an environmentally disastrous, planet-baking sector to a greener economy and society. As the business writer Nicole Ashcoff incisively noted three years ago:

For auto manufacturers the bailout was a godsend. It enabled General Motors and Chrysler to eliminate less profitable lines and cut their costs much more quickly than they would otherwise have been able to do. Within two years US motor vehicle manufacturers had returned to profitability, posting solid earnings. The bailout was chalked up as a success…But was the 2009 auto bailout a success? Not from the perspective of the environment and workers…The moment when the Obama administration decided that the US companies needed a major overhaul was also a moment of opportunity — a time when the government could have leveraged its power and resources to push the auto industry in a new direction, away from gas-guzzling SUVs and towards a greener more sustainable transportation system. The plants idled in the process of restructuring could have been retooled to produce materials for greening the economy, such as solar panels and wind turbines. Laid off auto workers could have been core contributors to a ‘just transition.’ …Instead, the skills and dedication of autoworkers were treated as a liability. Fulfilling the long-held wishes of the automakers, the Obama administration insisted that the only way forward for the industry was to drag down the wages and benefits of unionized autoworkers to match those of nonunion autoworkers…Practically overnight the Treasury-led corporate restructuring and downsizing rolled back decades of hard-won gains: thousands of blue-collar and white-collar auto jobs were destroyed; an unfair multitiered wage and benefit system was normalized and expanded; and livelihoods for many auto workers were slashed to poverty levels.”

Speaking of ecology, never forget that Obama greenlighted escalated fracking and offshore oil drilling while almost singlehandedly undermining desperate and overdue global efforts to impose binding planetary carbon emission limits in Copenhagen in December of 2009.

Obama can try to re-write his “vacuous to repressive neoliberal” presidential record as progressively pro-labor but the real historical record is unforgiving. The key pro-union labor law reform he campaigned on – the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA – “card check authorization”) – was kicked to the White House curb during his “Business Rule as Usual” (the title of the opening chapter of my 2010 book The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power) presidency. He quickly deep-sixed Single Payer national health insurance, which would have immeasurably enhanced workers’ bargaining power, in favor of the great “market”-friendly gift to the for-profit health industry that was corporate “Obamacare.” He never pursued renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement to include decent labor (or decent environmental) protections. He advanced no public jobs programs to soak up the nation’s desperate and large reserve army of unemployed.

With Democratic Party majorities in both houses of Congress and an angry, “pitchfork”-wielding populace at the gates in the wake of an epic and transparently Wall Street-caused recession, an actually progressive and pro-worker President Obama could have rallied the majority working class populace to push back against the nation’s concentrated wealth and power structures by leading a fight for a number of policies: a stimulus with major public works jobs programs; real (Single Payer) health insurance reform; the serious disciplining and even break-up or nationalization of the nation’s leading financial institutions; massive federal housing assistance and mortgage relief; and passage of EFCA.

No such policy initiatives issued from the White House, which opted instead to give the U.S. populace what William Greider memorably called “a blunt lesson about power, who has it and who doesn’t.” Americans, Greider wrote:

watched Washington rush to rescue the very financial interests that caused the catastrophe. They learned that the government has plenty of money to spend when the right people want it. ‘Where’s my bailout,’ became the rueful punch line at lunch counters and construction sites nationwide. Then to deepen the insult, people watched as establishment forces re-launched their campaign for ‘entitlement reform’ – a euphemism for whacking Social Security benefits, Medicare and Medicaid.

Americans watched as Obama moved on to pass a health insurance reform (the so-called Affordable Care Act) that only the big insurance and drug companies could love, rushing to install a program drafted by the Republican Heritage Foundation and first carried out in Massachusetts by the arch One Percenter Mitt Romney. As Obama later explained to some of his rich friends at an event called The Wall Street Journal CEO Council a month after trouncing Romney’s bid to unseat him in 2012:

When you go to other countries, the political divisions are so much more stark and wider. Here in America, the difference between Democrats and Republicans–we’re fighting inside the 40-yard lines…People call me a socialist sometimes. But no, you’ve got to meet real socialists. (Laughter.) You’ll have a sense of what a socialist is. (Laughter.) I’m talking about lowering the corporate tax rate. My health care reform is based on the private marketplace.

Hilarious. Obama might have added that his “health care reform” was dreamed up by Republicans, consistent with his likening of his administration to the presidency of Dwight Eisenhower.

In 2011, the American people watched Obama offer the racist Republicans bigger cuts in Social Security and Medicare than they asked for as part of the “Grand Bargain” he advanced during the elite-manufactured debt-ceiling crisis. It was at that point that masses of mostly younger Americans got tired of watching the neoliberal Obama shit-show and decided to act in populist ways by joining the Occupy Wall Street Movement. The movement was shut-down by a federally coordinated repression campaign that joined the Obama administration with hundreds of mostly Democratic city governments in the infiltration, surveillance, smearing, takedown and eviction of the movement – this even as Obama and his fellow dollar Democrats stole some of Occupy’s rhetoric for use against Romney and the Republicans in 2012. This repression was a great rebuke to the many naïve progressives who had dreamed that Obama was a wannabe social democrat waiting for the masses to make him do leftish things. Well, goddamn: some masses tried, and he joined the police-state-capitalist campaign to crush them.

It was time to do right by the working-class majority the minute Obama walked into the Oval Office. He did no such thing, quite the opposite in fact, consistent with his “deeply conservative” and capitalist-imperialist, arch-neoliberal world view.

It’s creepy to see left-identified people praising Obama now for supposed pro-labor sentiments in connection with support for the UAW’s effort to extract more money and benefits for workers from the parasitic and eco-cidal US capitalist-imperialist system. The question of what Obama could or should have done as president is (perilously rising) water under the bridge now. We have no more than ten years to radically replace capitalism with revolutionary eco-socialism if we want to retain prospects for a decent human future.

Would I be walking picket lines and opposing two-tiered wages systems if I was an American US autoworker right now? Sure, of course….if I was employed at one of the plants targeted for the union walkout, but we have some bigger priorities than getting “our fair share” of US corporate profits right now. The Big Three auto producers could pay every US autoworker $80-100,000 a year and capitalism would still be turning the planet into a giant Greenhouse Gas Chamber (that phrase bears repetition since the climate catastrophe is the biggest issue of our or any time), spreading neofascism, threatening global nuclear war, and consigning billions around the world system to misery in shantytowns and dying agriculture and sweatshops and detention camps and endless wars and prisons and the like. How about a mass political strike to end this system? We need to make an actual revolution for all of humanity and other living things and we need to make it soon.

Paul Street’s latest book is This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America (London: Routledge, 2022).