GM Plants Close and Auto Workers Lose Jobs – but There Is an Alternative (Pt. 1/2)
Responding to the five GM plant closings and 14,000 layoffs, former Canadian Auto Worker union Research Director Sam Gindin talks about alternative strategies to the neoliberal and right wing approaches that fail society
MARC STEINER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Marc Steiner, good to have you all with us.
We have all seen the news that General Motors will be closing five plants in the U.S. and Canada, laying off at least 14,000 workers. So why is this happening after massive investment and tax write-offs to GM Under President Obama and Trump’s vaunted deal to keep autos jobs in the U.S.?
DONALD TRUMP: And just today, breaking news, General Motors announced that they’re adding or keeping 900 jobs right here in Michigan, and that’s going to be over the next 12 months, and that’s just the beginning, folks. In fact, I told them that’s peanuts.
We’re going to make the process much more simple for the auto companies and everybody else that wants to do business in the United States. I think you’re going to find this to be from very inhospitable to extremely respectable. I think we’ll go down as one of the most friendly countries.
MARC STEINER: How does the trade war and drop in oil prices affect all of this? And what about tariffs on steel? The future seemed to be in electric vehicles, but SUVs and crossovers are the king of the marketplace, and those electric vehicles, well, they may not be made here anymore in the U.S. and Canada. So what about all the concessions that the workers make to keep their jobs and the plants up and running? Why is this all happening, and what is the alternative, which is the real question?
To get to the bottom of this, we welcome, once again, Sam Gindin, who was Research Director for the Canadian Auto Workers from 1974 to 2000, is now adjunct professor at York University and co-author of the book with Leo Panitch, The Making of Global Capitalism: The Political Economy of American Empire. And Sam, welcome back to The Real News.
SAM GINDIN: Great to be here.
MARC STEINER: So Sam, let’s get to the heart of this. I mean, why is this happening now? What is it about this moment where this is taking place?
SAM GINDIN: Well, we can address why it’s happening now in terms of GM is looking ahead to seeing that the long period of no recession is coming to an end, interest rates are going up, questions of energy prices, et cetera. And that kind of tells us something about exactly why it’s happening now. But what we have to recognize is that it isn’t just now, it’s been going on, that the strategy of saying that we’re going to make concessions to get some security, that the public is going to make concessions in terms of subsidies to these companies, which mean pressure on our social programs, accepting weaker unions. I mean, all of this isn’t going to guarantee us jobs. We have to recognize that if we’re living in a society that’s based on competition, so this constant restructuring, that’s based on private companies making decisions based on their own profits, if that’s the name of the game, if that’s the basic context, then this is what it’s going to mean for working people.
That’s really what it’s been meaning for working people for a few decades now, it’s just getting worse. And one of the things that’s happened is out of the frustration, working people have looked to the right. They’ve looked to somebody like Trump, who might solve this problem in the U.S. through some kind of trade protectionism or a trade deal. And also in Canada, we just elected also a right-wing government. And what this is exposing is that as soon as Trump says we just got this wonderful deal that’s going to give American workers jobs and security, within weeks of this agreement being reached, we see General Motors closing plants in Canada and the United States, leaving Mexico alone because that’s in their interests and talking about an electric car that’s going to be down the road and not produced here. And at the same time, they’re making the gas guzzling vehicles because they’re so much more profitable.
And in Canada, we get a similar thing. We elect a right-wing government who squashes labor laws, who takes away an increase that was coming in the minimum wage, and then announces very proudly and puts up billboards saying Ontario is Open for Business. Within a month, what you see is one of the most important facilities in the province closes. So I guess we have to think to ourselves, is well look, the easy solutions didn’t work. Putting our frustrations into hoping that these guys who don’t represent working people at all or don’t really care about working people at all, are going to give us answers. This doesn’t work, which means we have to step back and actually ask ourselves some hard questions. Well what can we really do about this?
MARC STEINER: So let me ask that question to you. So we have seen, this has been a reason why the right wing has gained so much momentum and power, simple answers and people really worried about their future. And you hear these kind of jingoistic things that come out there that people grab a hold of, the same reason people buy SUVs instead of electric cars on some levels. Then on the other hand, you’ve got the neoliberal response, with President Obama bailing out the auto industry. And what did that bring to us? So the question is, what is the alternative and how do you position that alternative?
SAM GINDIN: I think we’re at a moment where neoliberalism is being discredited, but also easy solutions to neoliberalism is being discredited, and that’s why there’s an opening here and we have to talk about a couple of things. I’d raise two different kinds of things. One is that there’s going to be a lot of bluster around this issue, a lot of screaming about General Motors, but unless something dramatic is done, it’s not going to stay on the agenda. And the union was formed by occupying plants in the 30s because they were desperate. They said it’s the only thing we can do, what else can we do when unemployment is so high and so many other people will take the jobs? Well, it’s the kind of thing we have to think about again. Workers are going to have to go into these plants that are being closed and not come out. And that’s going to be a way of drawing attention to it, putting it on the agenda and forcing people to say, well what might plan B be?
And in those terms, I think there’s a couple of things. One is we have to think big. And one of the lessons is that thinking small and just plugging along doesn’t work and thinking big means we both have to get beyond the auto industry, but also think about where the century is going. If it’s true that the environment is going to be the most pressing issue of this century, then we have to think about, well, how are we going to plan for it? And it’s going to be all kinds of things in terms of infrastructure, transit, refurbishing homes and offices, new kinds of motors, new kinds of appliances. These are all things that have to be made. And the question is, instead of letting plants sit idle and losing our productive capacity or moving, why don’t we say we want to take these plants over, we’ve paid for them basically through concessions and subsidies, and we want to convert this in a planned way to doing all the things we’re going to need in the future so that workers have jobs and we’re doing something useful.
It seems to me that that, at least, is something that makes sense. It’s going to be hard, but if we’re not ready to take on those kinds of difficult questions and really think about them, I’m afraid we don’t have very far to go.
MARC STEINER: So when you look at where we are now with the internationalization of capital, which makes it easy for them to kind of close the plant and move it to China or wherever else they want to move it and make deals with other governments, how do you posit that new future, new ideas about how to handle things, in that light?
SAM GINDIN: Well, we have to – that’s absolutely the right question. Because we can’t say we’re going to have a democracy where corporations have the right to do whatever they want, and we can’t do anything about it, even though it completely restructures and reshapes our lives. Part of what the free trade agreement is really about is constitutionalizing the right of corporations to do that. That’s the problem with free trade agreements. It’s not really about trade, it’s about saying you can go wherever you want, produce wherever you want and ship it into wherever you want. What we’re actually going to have to say is democracy demands that we get some control over capital. We can’t have a democracy of capital that’s free to do what it wants. And that’s going to be the fight that we have to really get into. We’re going to have to limit and control capital flows, whether it’s of General Motors or whether it’s finance, and they’re going to have to ask, well how do we want to use that capital?
MARC STEINER: We’re here talking with Sam Gindin, former Research Director for the Canadian Auto Workers and now adjunct professor at York University in Canada. And we’re talking about the closure of these plants. I want to thank Sam for joining us and all of this, but I ask you to stay with us for just a minute. We’re going to come back for another couple of minutes to talk to Sam about what the future might hold for us. Sam, thanks for joining us, good to have you with us here on The Real News Network.
SAM GINDIN: Great. Good to be here.