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Autoworkers "challenge logic of capitalism"

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. Today we’re with Sam Gindin. Sam for many years was an assistant to the president of the Canadian Autoworkers Union, now teaches at York University. Thanks for joining us, Sam.


JAY: So you just got back from Germany, you meeting with German autoworkers and a few North American autoworkers there. And if there’s one industry that’s sort of the epitome of what’s wrong today and at the center of the global economic crisis, it’s the auto industry. So what did you learn there?

GINDIN: As you said, it’s at the center of both the economic crisis and the environmental crisis. What was so exciting was that these workers actually wanted to directly confront the question of the limits of the auto industry and whether the auto industry itself had to be converted. It’s actually where that workers address that seriously [sic]. So this meeting included workers who were elected workers from union or from the work councils at Daimler, Ford, Volkswagen, and some suppliers. And so in addition to talking about the fact that they’re going to have to confront this question of excess capacity, which in Germany has really been postponed—. In Germany there haven’t been layoffs. People have been working short time, short weeks, subsidized by the state. That’s going to last for maybe another year, but then they’re going to have to confront an enormous amount of excess capacity in Germany. But on top of that, it wasn’t just the question of excess capacity. That was immediately, directly linked to the question of public transit. Where does the car fit into a more sensible overall transit policy and the question of the environment? And how do autoworkers deal with that?

JAY: So if you take that as the criteria for judging what a rational plan would be, let’s start with the US, and then we’ll do Canada. So how does the Obama plan for Detroit measure up to those objectives?

GINDIN: Now, you have to think about this much more radically than just basically trying to save the auto industry. You’ve got to rethink everything. You’ve got to think in terms of it’s not a matter of saving companies; it’s a matter of saving productive capacities and saving communities. You can’t address this problem if you’re just addressing it as an auto industry problem. You have to address it as a larger problem and start thinking beyond the auto industry.

JAY: Well, we heard that in the Obama election campaign, that there was going to be this whole plan for a new, green economy and that’s the way out of the recession. But is there any sign of that vision in the Detroit policy?

GINDIN: No. No, no. To really do this, to talk about this seriously, you can’t just assume that giving some subsidies to the companies or instructing them that if you survive, you have to do this or that, or having some new standards will do it. You have to think about actually having a national plan so there actually is a plan to convert the economy. I mean, you have to start with the notion that in the 21st century everything about the economy’s going to have to be changed if you’re going to adjust the environment. When I say everything, I mean the whole infrastructure of the economy, the whole transportation system. But everything about our home is going to be changed; everything about every factory is going to be changed. Now, if you start off from that and you say we need a serious plan to do that, then you’re creating a demand for all kinds of new things that have to happen. And then the question is is how does what’s happening in the auto industry fit into that. Now, the reason the auto industry has so much potential is because it’s got this incredible engineering capacity and skills that you can convert to all the things you need. And instead what’s happening is that these things are being closed. There’s hundreds of parts plants, for example, being closed in the United States. They’re gone. They just close. They don’t need them. What should be said is that they happen to be very valuable. If you stop thinking about this in terms of profitability and competitiveness, and in terms of use value and capacities and potential, then you should be expropriating those plants. You should be saying they can be socially used. And if you just took them over, there’d be nothing to do with them. I mean, you know, a new owner wouldn’t have anything to do with them, while workers taking it over might not be able to do much with it. It has to be a plan. And then you can say we’re taking them over, putting them under public ownership, and making them part of this larger plan of conversion.

JAY: So what would this plan look like in terms of roughly how do you imagine it?

GINDIN: Well, I don’t know that I have the details on it. The question is going in this direction. But the basic idea is that you have to talk about public ownership, that you’re actually going to have these plans as they’re taken over. And as they’re converted, there has to be the capacity to start sending engineers in to convert these plants. There has to be an overall plan in the economy about what public transit’s going to look like, about the use of solar energy, wind turbines, conversion of every single factory, the conversion of a whole public transit network, urban and intra-urban. And once you start talking about these things—. And a lot of this is going to have to be developed as you go along. You have to have a general sense of where you’re going, and you have to save this capacity while it still exists. And as this emerges, you end up with new questions that come up, but you have to deal with them. But I can also imagine that if there is this kind of a plan and if workers can see some hope in saving their jobs as they see them going down the drain, you can actually start thinking about intervening and putting on pressure from below, of which there exists—there’s no such pressure that exists right now from below, of saying that we don’t want that place to close.

JAY: Is this happening anywhere?

GINDIN: Well, you know, you’ve got—in Canada, for example, we’ve had three or four plant closures, a couple of auto plants, and steel workers have taken over couple of plants. The trouble is is that the workers take over a plant, and all they end up asking for is severance pay because they’re not getting their severance pay, and the big victory is that you get part of your severance pay. The point is to stimulate people to start thinking we want it to be taken over because we want to keep those jobs and because we think that that’s essential for us and for the community. And once you start thinking that way, all kinds of things are possible. You could imagine workers saying, “We want our plant converted, even if it’s still operating, ’cause we see down the road that might not work.”

JAY: When you say “converted,” you mean converted to making something that would be part of this [inaudible] economy.

GINDIN: Integrating into a larger plan that’s part of changing, yeah, the whole economy [inaudible].

JAY: Now, is there any country that’s approaching the kind of policies you’re talking about?

GINDIN: I don’t think so. I mean, you know, this actually—you know, when you’re honest about this, what you’re beginning to do is challenge the logic of capitalism and how things happen. And for that to happen, there has to be that kind of pressure from below. And that’s why it would be exciting if autoworkers actually saw themselves as potentially leading this kind of a fight instead of waiting for maybe some politician to put it on the agenda, to actually start demanding it, to actually start saying, this is what is logical, this is what could happen, and making it a political issue and taking actions. I mean, things happen when workers take over a plant, and people want to know why they taking it over, and workers can actually articulate a different vision. It gets on the political agenda. People are suddenly interested in it. In France, there’s been takeovers that have been very militant in their actions, in terms of kidnapping the employer, locking them in. But that’s just the beginning of it. You have to actually think even bigger than just your own plant. You have to say, “We need a large plan.”

JAY: So in the next segment of the interview, let’s talk about how do we get there, ’cause the way the politics are right now, it seems to be going in the other direction. So please join us for the next segment of our interview with Sam Gindin.