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Frank Hammer: GM was rebuilt by lowering wages and banning the right to strike

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay.

Now joining us to talk about President Obama’s State of the Union speech is Frank Hammer. Frank worked at GM in Detroit for 32 years. He’s the former president of the UAW local 909. And he joins us from his home in Detroit. Thanks for joining us.

FRANK HAMMER, FMR. PRESIDENT, UAW LOCAL 909: Thank you, Paul, for having me.

JAY: So probably the centerpiece of President Obama’s speech was to restore American manufacturing, and the model for that is the success story of his administration’s intervention by saving General Motors and the auto industry. What do you make of that?

HAMMER: I think that that’s a real, real bad model. I think that if anybody has any sense of what actually went down, we were thrust into a bankruptcy by the financial crisis, and, you know, Wall Street pretty much dictated the terms of what it would take to get out of the bankruptcy. And as a result, autoworkers have been severely sort of downsized and severely reduced. And going forward, the only way they did it was to tie our hands and put handcuffs on us. And it was all a myth. It wasn’t the autoworkers who were causing the problem; it was the financial crisis.

JAY: So, I mean, when you’re saying tied your hands and all of that, what are a couple of examples of what you’re talking about?

HAMMER: Well, President Obama made mention that the government got autoworkers and the companies to resolve their differences. Well, surely we did, because, number one, they prevented any strike from happening—they took away the right to strike. And secondly, they stipulated that whatever autoworkers would get here in Detroit cannot be any higher than the nonunion plants in the South. So it was a mandate to lower our standard of living and our expectations of quality of life to southern nonunion plants. So that was already mandated by the government. That was mandated by Wall Street.

And if that’s the model going forward, then what he’s really saying is that we’re going to reduce the standard of living of workers in this country to match those of Third World countries, so that the U.S.—you know, he cited the example of Master Lock. Well, he said, yeah, the Chinese workers are getting an increase in their minimum wage, and therefore it’s almost become more sense for Master Lock to come back here, where autoworkers and workers represented by the UAW are making less and less. So all he’s saying is that we’re turning the U.S. into a Third World country as far as workers’ wages are concerned, and that’s what’s going to make us more competitive, and that’s how we’re going to get jobs, if we’re willing to work for Third World wages.

JAY: Right. Now, he put a lot of emphasis on developing clean energy and such. What did you make of that part of his speech?

HAMMER: Well, I thought that he did mention the word climate change once, and all he said about it was that the Congress is maybe too divided to address that question. I thought that was a heck of a concession, considering that the scientists are saying that we must act expeditiously to address it. And he’s still doing this smorgasbord of, well, nuclear energy, fracking, biofuels, and so on, and also oil and so on, so he doesn’t really have a clear idea that the essential defining issue of our time is going to renewable energy, not biofuels, not nuclear, but clean energy. And instead, he said that the defining question of our time is whether we’re going to be able to maintain our middle-class way of life. And we’re not going to be able to maintain a middle-class way of life if we’re going to address—if we’re not going to address climate change.

JAY: I mean, one of the things we’ve talked about in our previous interviews is that the saving of the auto industry could have been a jumping off point for a different kind of economy. So this goes back to is what happened in Detroit the model.

HAMMER: Well, he did mention at some point that he thought that companies ought to get incentives for building new facilities in plants that have been in areas that have been hardest hit. And that harkens back to comments that he made back in 2009 that he would address areas like Detroit in a way that the Bush administration should have addressed a city like New Orleans when Katrina hit. So I thought that that was a positive suggestion in the right direction, so that one thing that was lacking, by the way, which he stated in previous State of the Union addresses, was the idea of rapid public transportation, you know, rapid rail, light rail. And we’ve been advocating here that some of these plants that are closed be reopened to fabricate railcars, you know, for light rail, for high-speed rail, and he made no mention of that. Hopefully we would still see some moves in the direction of solar energy and wind power using the current facilities that are closed, and using the incentives that Obama had mentioned in the speech.

JAY: What was your kind of overall impression of the speech? Does it give you the fact—some of the people I’ve been interviewing about this tonight are at least happy that he’s talking about such income inequality and such. I mean, does there anything in this speech that makes you think that there’s going to be any different Obama here?

HAMMER: Well, I tell you, I have a lot of disagreement with some of my dear friends, African-American friends, because they believe that Obama’s second term will be a different president, and I believe that reelected, I think that pretty much we’ve seen the Obama that we’re going to get. If there was any time that he would’ve given a speech that would have roused his base, it would have been at this State of the Union message. And I know that he’s not doing that very well, because my daughter, for example, you know, back in 2008 was a very avid campaigner for Obama, and I talked to her earlier this evening and also her husband, and neither one of them were very excited by his speech at all. This is his base. These are the young people that came out for him in the millions. And I don’t think that he really touched them with his speech. I think that it’s too much of an appeasement of the Republican hymn book. I don’t know how many times he talked about how bad regulations were. And I think that it was sort of a further appeasement, a further shift to what they call the center, which continuously gets redefined as being more right-wing and more right-wing with each passing year. So I think that it needed to ignite his base to, you know, this is an election year, and I feel that it’s taking the base for granted. He didn’t even mention Occupy Wall Street once, even though this is a movement that’s taken the U.S. by storm. And, in fact, at one point he—he didn’t make mention to the 99 percent, but he did mention 98 percent who are seeing stagnating wages. You know?

JAY: Right. Well, maybe he’s redefined who his base is. Maybe he was playing to his base. It’s just it isn’t the base that—who thinks it’s the base.

HAMMER: Yeah, I suppose. But that’s where the energy and enthusiasm came for his campaign four years ago. So if he’s redefined who his base is, he’s doing it in great peril.

JAY: Thanks for joining us, Frank.

HAMMER: Well, I thank you very much, Paul.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Frank Hammer is a member of the Real News Network Board of Directors, and has been a social justice activist for nearly 50 years. He spent the last 40 years in the labor movement as an autoworker and a member, elected officer, staff representative, and now retiree of the United Auto Workers. Frank was the former president of the Greenacres Woodward Civic Association in Detroit, and he currently represents the association as a member of the Michigan State Fairgrounds Advisory Committee. He is a lecturer in the Labor Studies Programs at Wayne State and Indiana Universities. He’s a board member of the Michigan Coalition for Human Rights, an activist with South East Michigan Jobs with Justice, the School of the Americas Watch (SOAW-UAW), and the Autoworker Caravan.