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Auto bailout for who? Pt. 2

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to the next segment of our discussion with Sam Gindin. Sam recently retired as assistant to the president to the Canadian Auto Workers’ Union and is now a professor of political science at York University in Toronto. Thanks, Sam. So the basic argument we’re hearing and the logic of the bailout that’s coming from Congress and Obama is that more or less the union is to blame for this crisis, because these companies are saddled with these payments. And because the union’s to blame, the union should take, the workers should take the hit. What about this logic? And what’s the rationale?

SAM GINDIN, PROF. POLITICAL SCIENCE, YORK UNIV.: Well, you should appreciate, you know, the extent of the States’ intervention on this, ’cause it’s quite remarkable, you know, given how this wasn’t an issue at all when dealing with Wall Street, what people were making, not just at the top but at various levels. It was a non-issue. And then, in the auto industry, the compensation of management hasn’t been an issue. It’s interesting how much they focused on the workers. And what they actually did here which is so remarkable is they said that these unionized workers have to match. They didn’t just say, “Go in and bargain something”; they said they have to match the conditions of Toyota, Honda, and Nissan—they actually named the company—in terms of wages, benefits, and working conditions. And, again, as I mentioned last time, that the health-care plan they have, instead of being properly funded, has to be funded through stock from General Motors.

JAY: It’s kind of ironic, ’cause the same people who are saying, “We don’t want the government telling companies how to run the auto business,” they don’t have any trouble telling the unions how to run their business.

GINDIN: In the most rigid kind of a way. And it’s very ironic, because one of the things workers are waiting for from Obama is that Obama would actually make it easier to organize workers in the United States, where it’s harder to organize workers than anywhere else.

JAY: This is this new piece, the Employee Free Choice Act, which is going to be a big fight over this piece of legislation.

GINDIN: Right. So there’s going to be a big fight over it. And so at the same time workers are expecting a change there, the state is basically using the autoworkers to set the standard by saying to the autoworkers, “You’re going to have to match non-union plants,” which is really [inaudible]

JAY: What about the argument that the autoworkers have had it pretty good for a long time, and they’ve been amongst the elite of the workers, and they had a health-care plan and severance and layoff protection to some extent that nobody else had, and that’s made this sector uncompetitive?

GINDIN: Yeah. Let me get to some of the numbers on wages and stuff. But, I mean, anybody who looks at this problem seriously knows that the problem here has to do with the kind of models that are being put out. If you don’t have models that are selling, you don’t have models that are sensitive to how things are changing in the economy or in the environment, you’re going to die. So anybody looking at this seriously knows that’s where the problem is. If that doesn’t get changed, nothing gets changed. Blaming the workers for it, you know, a few things. I mean, one is that autoworkers have been doing relatively better historically than other workers. That used to be something everybody was proud of. This was an example of America at its best: you could actually win things and share in productivity. The problem is is that nobody else was making these gains; everybody else was being hammered. And the truth of it is that over the last 25 years, autoworkers haven’t been doing that remarkably in terms of wages. Their real wages since 1979 have gone up by 8 percent over the whole period. If they went up as fast as GM, as the salaries of GM executives, they’d be making $280 an hour, not $28 an hour, and probably saying, “I don’t mind taking a little bit of a cut.” They’ve actually lost work time over that period. There was a moment in the late ’70s when workers were trying to move toward a shorter work time. They gave that up. Their health-care costs have gone up enormously, and they add that up when they look at their cost. But the reality is it’s not because they’re negotiating improved benefits, it’s because the cost of health-care in the States have been exploding for drugs and all kinds of health services way beyond what’s happening in any other country. And the solution for that isn’t about workers taking cuts and giving up their health care; it’s actually about talking about a national health-care plan. And these numbers about workers getting $70 an hour is just ludicrous, because what they’re doing is they’re taking all the costs of all the surviving spouses and retirees, these 480,000, that number 480,000 is, you know, six times as many as those working, and they’re just dividing them amongst those workers. So it’s important for workers to fight back around these things, ’cause it’s the only way for workers to change the agenda and put other things on the agenda. And I think this should also be understood in two other ways. One is that you’ve got everybody talking about the need for stimulus, that there’s a new Keynesianism in the land, and then you’ve got corporations trying to survive by laying off people and cutting wages. Now, there’s a problem in this logic. And one of the things that workers have to actually—and I think the unions have been very inept at doing this—is actually to say, wait a second. What is the logic here? You’re spending all this time talking about stimulus packages, and then you’re undermining them by saying that you want to undercut the income of people.

JAY: Yeah. It’s almost considered unpatriotic not to take the wage cut, like, as if it’s bad for the economy for you to have high wages.

GINDIN: Whereas reality, by their very logic today, you know, they haven’t been saying this forever, but today what everybody is saying is the only way you’re going to get out of this depression is through some kind of stimulus and these wage cuts. And these wage cuts, the point about them is that they set a standard for others. What happens in auto still matters. I don’t think it’s definitive, but it still matters. It sets a tone. So you’re undermining even that logic. And I think the union hasn’t been very good at exposing even that contradiction.

JAY: And why? Why isn’t the union better at all of this? Or is it partly because a lot of the leaders of the union have been okay with more or less the status quo for the last 50 years or more?

GINDIN: Well, I mean, you know, let me just make one other point about the concessions that are so important, because it’s not like somebody invented this argument of “Hey, why don’t you just give up something and keep your jobs?” or, “The government’s lending the money. Why don’t you do your share?” Workers have been going through this since ’79. I mean, you have to remember that the auto industry, the Detroit Three, had 750,000 workers in 1979 when the question of concessions came up. And every round of bargaining since then, the unions slowly made more and more concessions. Until now they’ve almost lost their health care. They lost their work time. And the workforce went from 750,000 to under 200,000. If more than two-thirds of the jobs are gone, you’ve got to say to yourself, well, there’s something larger happening here. And part of the question is: well, why hasn’t the union moved off of that? And that’s a difficult question. I think there’s a number of reasons for it, but one is there’s been a general defeat of the labor movement and progressive forces since the early ’80s [inaudible]

JAY: Are we talking about both countries now?

GINDIN: Both countries.

JAY: The numbers you were just giving were US or Canadian numbers?

GINDIN: They were US. In Canada they’re not quite as dramatic, but the same trend. And the Canadians used that to fight concessions for a long time. They really tried to show that this doesn’t work. And, in fact, we did better when we resisted it, ’cause we got larger questions on the agenda. But to the question of what’s going on here, I mean, part of this goes beyond the union. There’s been a defeat of the labor movement generally. There’s been the defeat of progressive forces. So people in labor feel more isolated. They feel weaker. Their expectations have been lowered. So there’s that general problem, and that’s outside labor unions. I think in addition to that there are labor leaders who begin to get comfortable with the argument that there’s nothing that you can do, that globalization, neoliberalism, it’s too complicated, because it is difficult. They’re right about it being difficult. But if you actually said, “We can do something,” then you have to change all your structures. You have to have a more democratic, more accountable union. You’re mobilizing people who are going to be demanding and saying things. And I think some trade union leaders, unfortunately, began to get comfortable with saying, “Geez, there’s nothing we can do. We’re just kind of trying to hold the fort.” And a lot of them, I think, do think in this narrow way of there isn’t. They’ve internalized that there isn’t much [inaudible]

JAY: One of the chapters in your article is “Hypocrisy and Class.” What do you mean?

GINDIN: I mean that when you take a look at—. First of all, you have to remember this was a loan. And on Wall Street, they were just dropping the complaints, they were giving it to them, and they were giving it to them forever. And, you know, Wall Street, the $750 billion, you know, it was about 20 times what the Detroit Three were asking, and no questions. So the question is: well, what’s going on there? Now, at one level that’s really not hypocritical. That kind of reflects the difference between the Detroit Three and finance, that the Detroit Three don’t have that kind of iconic status they used to have as the American way, mass production, mass consumption—.

JAY: What’s good for GM is good for the America.

GINDIN: Right. Mass consumption, mass production, you know, the power of the auto to change suburbia, just change everything about our lives culturally.

JAY: Well, in the next segment of our interview, let’s talk about what is the whole importance of the manufacturing sector to the United States, and what is this whole issue of wages and the crisis, and, you know, is higher wages a solution or the problem. Please join us for the next segment of our interview with Sam Gindin.

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