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Sam Gindin: Middle of the road options are no longer an option; the crisis demands a radical new vision

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network. We’re with Sam Gindin, who for many years was the assistant to the president of the Canadian Autoworkers Association and now teaches at York University. We’re talking about the economic crisis, the auto industry, and the global climate-change crisis. Thanks for joining us.


JAY: So we were talking earlier about what a new vision for an auto industry, for the whole economy, would be, which you’re saying needs to be a big plan which takes into account climate-change crisis and a restructuring of industry, which is really a sea change in the politics of the country, ’cause right now, if you look at what happened in Detroit, the Obama administration had a golden moment where the auto companies came begging to the government, and if there was ever a time to do what he said he was going to do in his campaign—use the auto industry is a vision for a new, green economy—it would have been during that takeover. Instead, as you said, they’re going back to seeing if they can get lean, mean, competitive auto machines again. So how do you get to a politics with the kind of vision you’re hoping for?

GINDIN: Even thinking in terms of Obama at his best, that kind of radical change just wasn’t on it. You really need to have a social force that can do that. One of the tragedies of the last quarter of a century is that the labor movement and the left have been defeated quite generally, and not just in the United States, so there hasn’t been a social force to do it. The question is: can you start building and rebuilding that kind of a social force, and can you use these kinds of questions of excess capacity, the economic crisis, climate change, public transit to really rebuild that? So one of the exciting things in Germany is that you actually did have workers sitting around discussing these problems, workers who had a social base, who were, I think, intimidated by these kinds of questions but are actually trying to take them seriously. So the kind of things they were thinking about was: Do we go back and form committees in each of our plants so we start planning for this? It’s not going to change tomorrow. How do we win workers over? How do we form a network amongst ourselves and prepare educational material so we can distribute it and convince our own people that this is the thing to do, and then use that to really build, to have the labor movement itself put this on the agenda with confidence that it can actually speak to a vision and not just be defensive? And this raises other questions, ’cause to pull this off you have to have political capacity to do this, which raises a question: What’s the new left party in Germany? How is it going to evolve? And is there going to be pressure to put pressure on it to do this? So the most important question isn’t technical. You know, if you go back to the war in 1941, they stopped making cars because they converted everything to war production. It wasn’t actually that difficult to do—people were surprised at the extent to which you could do it. You could probably do more of it now, given the higher technology. And then you convert it back again. At Lucas Aerospace in the ’70s, I think it was, there were discussions of moving out of military production and actually thinking about the socially useful things that you could do, and workers linked themselves up with engineers to think about doing this. But the critical question is developing the political strength to do that, and that means developing the kind of confidence that hasn’t existed for an awfully long time about saying where we’re going is a dead-end. We have to think different.

JAY: Well, in terms of the North American context, does this imply, then, some kind of fight within the auto union itself?

GINDIN: Absolutely. And if you’re going to change the direction of the labor movement, you have to come to grips with the fact that the crisis isn’t just an economic crisis and it isn’t just an environmental crisis; it’s very much a crisis within the labor movement, and the left more generally, about how to develop the capacity in this context to actually start changing things. And I think one of the reasons it’s so difficult is that the options have become so polarized. There isn’t these kinds of middle-of-the-road, nice options where we just say, “Can we just grow a little bit faster and maybe get some of the welfare state back through that?” The options are really polarized [inaudible] understood this. [inaudible] have been quite radical. The left hasn’t come to grips with that at all.

JAY: And in the US the sort of anger about the state of things seems to be more expressed through right-wing talk television than anywhere else. It’s the right-wing expression of the anger is stronger than the left.

GINDIN: Yeah, there’s enormous frustration; there’s enormous anger. You don’t have to tell people that the system doesn’t work right. People understand that. But channeling that into actually thinking about you can change things [inaudible] possibilities and, you know, it’s very difficult.

JAY: Well, that moment in the US and Canadian contexts when the crisis was so severe and government came in and bailed out the auto industry, it seems this is going to be quite a temporary fix. The overcapacity we’re talking about in the first segment of the interview is going to assert itself even as things are. And if this recession, which is supposedly over, turns out not to be over and unemployment continues to rise and wages continue to stagnate or go down, then the auto industry’s going to be hit even worse. So we’re going to be back into real crisis situation again, probably soon.

GINDIN: Even if the crisis ends and even we start having relatively stable growth over the next while, the environmental crisis isn’t going away, for one thing, and the restructuring of the auto industry is going to continue. It’s going to be an enormous amount of restructuring in the auto industry.

JAY: Restructuring meaning downsizing.

GINDIN: Downsizing, closing plants, restructuring within the workplace. So for workers, those kinds of pressures—pressures to lower your wages, to compete, those kinds of pressures, pressures on pensions—headlines today about Ford saying we might have a problem funding our pension plan in Canada. You know, the risks of health care in the United States have been put basically on the backs of the workers now. Even the company plans are now—. So those kinds of pressures aren’t going away at all, and they’re going to be there. You know, we don’t have to assume that only a crisis will mean that those pressures exist. Those pressures will exist anyways. And one of the things, I think, to appreciate about these kinds of crises is that the outcome of competition isn’t symmetrical. At the end of the day, there’s going to be an auto history. It might be smaller. And the people who run the auto industry are going to be—you know, the ones who are left are going to be stronger. Or there’s a stronger General Motors ’cause it gets rid of its debt and it got rid of a lot of obligations to workers, you know, got rid of half of its plants. It’ll end up strong. And there’ll be a strong Toyota and a strong Honda. For workers it means something completely different, because workers and the unions have been absolutely devastated because they haven’t had anything to offer other than how fast is the retreat going to be.

JAY: So what would you say to either an unemployed auto worker watching this who might be unemployed soon or an already unemployed auto worker, and they’re sitting watching this interview and they’re saying, okay, so what should I do?

GINDIN: I guess what I would say is that often when people raise these kinds of large questions, workers say, well, that’s very nice, but that’s kind of academic. I have a very immediate problem, which is that I’ve got to figure out how I keep my job and how I get some income and support my family. And I think part of problem is thinking that small and that specifically about yourself and trying to cope with it at that level. What that means is that you’re always back to that same box: “So what do I do? I don’t have new choices.” And unless you begin to think much bigger and more radically, I think, about how you actually participate in building the kind of movement that can take that on, you’re never going to have real options. So I think in fact thinking big and radical isn’t academic at all. It’s what [inaudible] practical is today.

JAY: Thanks for joining us.


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


Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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