GM workers walked off the job. The UAW leadership had no choice. The members were disgusted by a disgraced leadership corrupted by bribes into pushing pro-GM contracts. They didn’t trust their own leaders. So they took it upon themselves to walk with or without their leaders. In fact, the day before the walkout, the leadership encouraged them to cross the janitor’s picket line. These janitors were fellow UAW members. A last straw.
Old John Dewey, back in the Roaring ’20’s, came to believe that industrial capitalism was not compatible with democracy. This GM strike made me realize how true this is. Back in 2008, as the Obama Administration was preparing for office, General Motors had run out of cash, and was about to go bankrupt. President Bush authorized a multibillion dollar loan. The Obama Administration went further and essentially nationalized the company, giving the government power to force changes.
The Obama team was proud of the fact that they guided GM back to financial health. They boasted that they saved a million jobs by saving the US auto industry. Workers had no say in this process. They were not part of the managerial decisions that bankrupted GM. The bailout, however, was accomplished mainly by inflicting much pain on GM workers, the unfortunate victims. Wages were cut in half for new workers. Temporary workers with no job security were brought in. Factories were closed or moved to Mexico.
People will say that the Big 3 automakers face stiff international competition. They have to compete with workers abroad and nonunion workers here in the US. Indeed, to maintain its $8 billion dollar per year profits, GM is still not only closing more factories in the US, but asking workers to pay more for their health insurance, increasing their contribution from 5% to 15% of their pay. All necessary to maintain the financial health of the company. Right? Otherwise everyone will lose their job.
Why is it that when the Obama team “nationalized” GM that workers endured a disproportionate portion of the pain? Shouldn’t the federal government do something for the little guy? Or, were the Democrats drinking the neoliberal kool-aid which holds that God is the “free-market”, and government is always, and inherently, very, very bad?
Last night I watched Chris Hedges interview Noam Chomsky on a YouTube video. Chomsky mentioned Youngstown Ohio, formerly a steel producing hub. Apparently when the steel producing factories were idled, the workers proposed buying them. It would be a worker owned enterprise. The offer was turned down. In a similar fashion, Mr. Chomsky mentioned that the infrastructure situation in the US is scandalous, especially in the area of public transportation. He said that the Japanese government has offered to loan us money to build high speed rail. His idea was to take idled car factories and reconfigure them to make these modern high speed rail cars. Something like that was done in World War II.
It would seem that ideas like that would be perfect for both satisfying a social need for public transport and employing workers laid off from the auto industry. A federal program could coordinate public private partnerships, even encourage workers to take over these idled factories and retool them to produce again. Why not?
The answer, I fear, is evident. The prevailing political will does not lie with the average worker. After 40 years of wage stagnation, the rusting away of the industrial heartland, the growth of the gig economy, all add up to one thing: governments, unions, and corporations want a desperate workforce. Labor willing to settle for crumbs.