Will the unions take up an independent position from the leaders of the Democratic Party? Bill Fletcher Jr and Frank Hammer


Story Transcript

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington, and we’re on the last night of our first annual Real News Webathon. Our target was to hit $200,000 by the end of tonight, and we’re somewhere right around $195,000, so it looks like we’re going to hit $200,000. But as I’ve mentioned several times, $200,000 just kind of barely supports four months of our work. So we’re really hoping to crack through the $200,000 barrier, but right now we’ve got to crack the next $5,000. So if you want to donate, you can either do it on the donate page. But before I actually do any more of this little–of my pitch, let me just say we are having audio problems at TheRealNews.com. But there’s a fix. If you look above the player, if you’re still on TheRealNews.com, you’ll see up here a link to the Livestream.com/therealnews, and if you go there, you’ll have no sound problems. So that’s our–we have another channel, you could say, a page at this site, Livestream site, and you should see down here where to go. So go over to Livestream and you should be able to solve the audio problem. So if you want to donate, click on Livestream down here. You’re going to see a little ticker going down here. If you click on that, you can donate on the ticker. If you’re watching from the Real News site, you’ll see a donate button. Or if all of this is getting to be a pain in the you-know-what, you can call this number, 888-449-6772 (and you’ll see that down here, too), and one of our colleagues will answer the phone and help you with the donation. Okay. Now we’re going to talk about what’s going on amongst the working class. And this is something you hardly ever hear in the media, that there is such a thing as the working class. We’re supposed to say “middle-class”. I guess that’s supposed to take some of its left veneer off it or something, left inflection off it. I guess this is stuff that comes out of the Cold War. But you’re not even supposed to say there is such a thing as class. The only time you talk about class is during elections, and then there’s the middle class. But there’s never a lower class, there’s never an upper class. At any rate, on The Real News, we think one needs to deal with facts, and clearly there is classes in this society, and one of those classes is the working class. So what’s going on amongst workers who are suffering the worst from this economic crisis? And joining us to unpack this, as well as what’s happening in the union movement, starting–we have two guests joining us who have been working for decades in the unions and amongst workers. First, from Detroit, Frank Hammer joins us. Frank’s a retired General Motors employee and former president and chairman of Local 909 in Warren, Michigan. He now organizes with the Auto Worker Caravan, an association of active and retired autoworkers. And in the studio joining us is Bill Fletcher Jr. He’s a columnist, an activist, an author, a labor organizer. He’s the executive editor of The Black Commentator. And let me get the Web address properly.

BILL FLETCHER JR., EXEC. EDITOR, THE BLACK COMMENTATOR: www.BlackCommentator.com

JAY: And I encourage you to visit there and see Bill’s work. Okay, let me start with Bill. So, first of all, talk a little bit about the conditions workers are in now over the last two years. And how are they being affected by the crisis? And what are some signs of response?

FLETCHER: Massive unemployment for prolonged periods of time. This is not the typical [cyclical] unemployment. You’re talking about people that have been unemployed for 18 months who are dropping off the rolls, giving up in despair. You’re talking about the continued process of foreclosure of homes. You know, one of the things, Paul that really gets in my gut was that, particularly during the ’90s, we were being told that–invest in your home, your home will never lose value, you can borrow against it. And as the overall living standard of workers was slowly declining, people were drawing on their homes in order to survive, with the assumption that the value of their homes would continue to go up. And it’s crashed, and people are actually suffering. And one of the groups that’s completely shocked by this are white-collar workers, who have been hit in devastating proportions through–since the crisis really hit the fan in the fall of 2008.

JAY: Frank, you’re in Detroit and you’re an–retired auto worker. One of the important things that happened, I think, in the, “bailout” of GM and Chrysler was the concession made on the issue of wages, this new introducing a two-tier wage plan, that older workers could maintain a starting–you know, a salary of roughly $26 and more, and new workers at $14. And now we’re starting to see that develop in other industries. Harley-Davidson apparently recently signed a contract just like this. /koUl/, which I think makes plumbing supplies, did something similar. So high employment is actually good for some people in this society. So what’s the situation in Detroit?

FRANK HAMMER, ORGANIZER, AUTO WORKER CARAVAN: First of all, I want to just thank you for all your efforts. I think that you’re doing a great job.

JAY: Thank you.

HAMMER: Especially giving a voice to working-class people, which is generally shut out of the media, the mainstream media, except when they want to stick a microphone in front of you when you’re coming out of a plant gate. So I think this is a wonderful, refreshing change. I want to say, first of all, you know, I think we’ve got to make sure that we don’t use the word “bailout”, I think, with the auto industry, because it was really a bunch of loans that were granted by the federal government to the auto industry. And, unfortunately, the issue of two tiers preceded the structured bankruptcies that GM and Chrysler went through. The actual two-tier agreements came in in 2007, which were part of what was called a transformative agreements. So that not being enough for the auto companies and for Wall Street, in 2009 as part of the restructuring, the restructured bankruptcies, they only added to the two-tiers and actually mandated that the unions at Chrysler and at GM could not even exercise the fundamental right to strike, which is recognized as a fundamental human right at the United Nations. So that was taken away from us in exchange for loans being given to General Motors and Chrysler.

JAY: And the leadership of UAW went along with all this. They’ve got a seat or two on the board. They’ve agreed to take over the risk of the health plan. So in terms of–what’s the feeling of autoworkers now with their leadership?

HAMMER: Well, what’s happened since–you asked about the two-tier, the–what I would consider unequal pay for equal work, which was–one of the bedrocks of a union movement has always been equal pay for equal work. And what’s happened is that in each plant they now have two wage structures, a first-tier, which were the–with the traditional wage, and then the new workers that are getting half the wage and certainly reduced benefits.

JAY: And soon it will only be the low wage.

HAMMER: Pardon me?

JAY: Once they retire these workers out or get them to leave, it will be only the low-wage workers that will be left.

HAMMER: There we’re talking about $14 an hour. That’s great, which is not too much above a poverty wage for a family of four.

JAY: Alright. Let me ask Bill–. Sorry.

HAMMER: What has been interesting is that workers sort of grudgingly and under–you know, they had a gun to their heads at the time of the bankruptcy. And even in 2007 they were–grudgingly agreed to this two-tier wage structure, with the idea that, you know, well, this would only affect the new workers, it wouldn’t affect the existing workforce. And reality is that that’s actually changed. In Indianapolis earlier this year they tried a little bait-and-switch game, where GM was going to sell their stamping facility in Indianapolis to a startup supplier on the condition that the workers would accept a 50 percent wage cut in order for the new buyer to go through with the deal. And to the credit of the GM workers at the stamping plant, they rejected it, that they should exchange half their wage and their standard of living to–so that General Motors could continue to–stamping operations under the name of this new supplier. GM claimed that they were going to close the plant, and somehow, by miracle, the new buyer was proposing to continue the plant operations. So the workers rejected that under a tremendous amount of pressure from the state, from the companies, from the union.

JAY: And how did it end up?

HAMMER: The workers voted down the demands for the 50 percent wage cut. And as we understand right now, the plant has continued to be scheduled to be closed in 2011. In the meantime, we have another circumstance here in Lake Oregon–.

JAY: Actually, Bill–before you go on, Frank–hang on. Before you go on, one of the things we want to do in these evenings of the webathon is take calls from viewers, and we’ve got a viewer on the line now.

LENNY, CALLER: Okay. My question is to Bill Fletcher. Bill, you recently joined the advisory board of Progressive Democrats of America with the goal of encouraging organized labor to take action independent of the corporate Democrats who are currently controlling the Democratic Party. Can you talk a little bit about how that’s going?

FLETCHER: So thank you, Lenny. It’s at a very early stage, and the big challenge is that many if not most of the leaders of the unions are caught in a quandary. They’re really not certain how to respond to what’s going on with the Obama administration and many of the more conservative Democrats. They had taken the position upon Obama’s election, in effect, to give them a pass, to basically sit and wait and see what resulted, instead of keeping or even putting pressure on him. And this was something across the board, very little pressure on him. And what’s happened now is that there is massive outrage at, for example, the pay freeze of federal employees or the tax cut agreement that was just recently arranged with the Republicans. So I would say that we’re in a period of transition. The question is whether the leaders will make a move to reach out to other groups and force us to build what my mentor Jack O’Dell would call the third force, not a third party but a third force that can put pressure on the Democrats.

JAY: Okay. So that’s my follow-up question, then. Frank in terms of this idea of a third force putting pressure on the Democrats, PDA (Progressive Democrats of America) and others are looking at this third force as an idea that if–it’s within the Democratic Party, trying to create, I guess, primary battles and develop a kind of movement, some people say, to take over the Democratic Party. What’s your view on that? And what seems to be happening in Detroit, if anything, on this?

HAMMER: Well, I want to come back to the whole question of the relationship between the labor movement and the Obama administration. I think one of the things that was really striking to me [was] that labor mobilized last October 2, and it appeared in Washington, DC, with allies like the NAACP and other progressive organizations, 175,000 strong, and what was striking is that there was nobody but nobody from the Obama administration that addressed this gathering. This is the Obama–the Democratic Party base. It was absolutely and totally ignored. And I compare that to when Bush in 2005 had no problems addressing an antiabortion crowd in Washington, DC, live. And I wonder why the labor movement didn’t question why the Obama administration is keeping such a distance between itself and its natural constituency. And how in the world are they–is the Obama administration supposed to think that UAW members and other members of other labor organizations are going to continue to support him if he can’t–?

JAY: So, Frank, in Detroit, amongst what–you know, the workers you know and have contact with, are workers just tuning out, like they’re just going to stay home and not vote? Or is there some motion to try to actually take–you know, run candidates at the local level or in Michigan that will take on this corporate Democratism?

HAMMER: I think that, first of all, there are some action of resistance at grassroots levels. Certainly, in the UAW, workers expressed a spirited kind of a challenge during the UAW convention last June. There are third-party efforts here in the Detroit area and in Michigan in the form of the Green Party, and in the recent elections, the sad part about it is that they pretty much scored in the percentile of, you know, 1 or 2 percent. So it’s very difficult to go that route. And it seems to me that what we’re trying to do here is to coalesce workers and community around the issues that are really coming down on working people, as what Bill was mentioning, either in the form of unemployment and in the form of the foreclosures that are hitting this region, and trying to coalesce a movement that can press organized demands on–certainly on the Democratic Party going forward.

JAY: Well, let me ask Bill this, this issue of a third force versus a third party.

FLETCHER: Right. The undemocratic nature of the US electoral system makes it very, very difficult, as Frank was talking about, for third parties to emerge, because what happens is that people may hear very good platforms or rhetoric from a third party or from someone like Ralph Nader, they’ll listen to that, they’ll respond to it, but they won’t vote in that direction, because they feel that if they do that, they will end up leading to a Republican to getting elected. So the challenge historically has been to try to figure out a way of operating both inside and outside of the Democratic Party. And the idea of a third force is an organized progressive force that runs candidates in Democratic primaries, has its own basic platform. The issue of whether it’s taking over or trying to take over the Democratic Party is irrelevant. But it’s a force. So it’s analogous to what we saw with the Tea Party, where they basically ran in the Republican primaries, they openly challenged, they were audacious in their willingness to go after so-called moderate Republicans. We’re not doing enough of that. And, in fact, what labor needs to be doing is joining forces to do just this.

JAY: Well, Frank, isn’t that part of the issue? When you say labor at the moment, that means the leaders of the big unions, and most–not all, but most–are pretty wrapped up in the leadership of the Democratic Party, and at least so far have never taken them on. I know there are some individual leaders that do and some individual unions that do, but what do you think is the possibilities for this?

HAMMER: Well, I would have to concur with what you just said. An example is with my own Democratic governor, Jennifer Granholm, who to a right-wing think tank–i’m sorry earlier this year expressed to the gathering of all these corporate heads and government heads and so on that the future role of a union such as mine, the UAW, would be as the broker of great skills, as opposed to the contentious past that UAW allegedly had. And what was striking to me upon hearing this–. And also she lauded the idea of three-tier wage structures. What was striking to me is that she was the first one to speak to the UAW convention in June, and she repeated the same statement, that the UAW should be, in the future, the broker of great skills. She didn’t mention the part about the three-tier wage structure. But this was accepted absolutely–.

JAY: Or the broker of political power. I guess she didn’t mention that, either.

HAMMER: No, she didn’t mention that. And so–and this was accepted without a blink of an eyelash by the UAW leadership at that convention, that that’s the future role the UAW is going to play. So not only is the UAW not challenging the Democratic Party; it seems to me that they’re taking the direction from the Democratic Party. And that’s, really, totally contrary to the idea that our union movement is supposed to be independent. You know, we should be an independent structure and organization, but instead we’re taking our directives from the Democratic Party, which I think is going to be to the demise of the unions if we don’t change course.

JAY: Well, listen, I’m very apologetic about the technical difficulties in the last half hour, so apologetic I’m not even going to do a pitch for money. We’re going to take a break. Thank very much to both my guests. We’re going to continue this discussion in the next couple weeks and take your calls, and we’ll let you know when it happens, ’cause there’s so much to talk about here. Please join us in a few minutes. We’re going have a discussion, debate about US policy towards Iran, what’s happening inside Iran. And I urge you to come back in a few minutes. And we will return very soon.

End of Transcript

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