On Thursday night, Republicans in the US Senate succeeded in filibustering the newest draft of the $14 B auto bailout bill. The Bush Administration and Treasury Department moved quickly to assure everyone that they would not allow Chrysler and GM to fail, and that they were considering committing some of the $700 B financial bailout money to the cause. Many of the Republican senators who voted down the bill cited the United Auto Workers union as the reason for the breakdown of the bill. Oppositely, many union members have accused the senators in question of union busting. The Real News Network spoke to Mark Brenner, an expert on the US labor movement and auto industry, to get his opinion on the standoff.
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GOP Targets Auto Union
Producer: Jesse Freeston
ZAA NKWETA, TRNN: On Thursday, the US Senate voted to reject the $14 billion auto sector bailout bill that the House had passed the night before. In the hours that followed the bill’s collapse, the White House made clear its intention to keep the auto s6ector from failing, stating that it would consider using part of the $700 billion financial bailout bill to prop up GM and Chrysler.
DANA PERINO, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: We believe that the economy is in such a weakened state right now that adding another possible loss of one million jobs is just something our economy cannot sustain at the moment.
NKWETA: In the aftermath of the bill’s failure, there was disagreement over who was responsible for the collapse of the bill. UAW president Ron Gettelfinger accused the Republican senators who voted the bill down of responsibility.
RON GETTELFINGER, PRESIDENT, UNITED AUTO WORKERS: There is no question. And I think, at the end of the day, who was the minority in the Senate representing, regardless of their motivation? They thought perhaps they could have a twofer here, maybe: you know, pierce the heart of organized labor while representing the foreign brands.
NKWETA: Meanwhile, Republican Senator Bob Corker blamed the bill’s failure on the inflexibility of the United Auto Workers Union.
SEN. BOB CORKER (R-TN): And all we asked for from labor was a date certain as to when they would be on par with the transplants. We actually listed Honda, Toyota, BMW. We left out one of the transplants that they felt like wages were too low. That was fine. And then we made it subject to a certification by the secretary of labor, which obviously is going to be an Obama secretary of labor. But we could not get a date certain. It became evident that what they wanted to do was leave their existing contract in place just like it was. And as I wake up this morning, knowing the gravity of where we were, the fact that they were willing to make no concessions, zero, and let these companies fall into peril, as they are now, to me, as I wake up today, it’s pretty surreal.
NKWETA: The Real News spoke to Mark Brenner, the director of Labor Notes.
MARK BRENNER, DIRECTOR, LABOR NOTES: Well, in some ways it’s really a false debate, because in fact wages at most of the Big Three—I mean, the wages at the quote-unquote “transplants,” the Japanese and German factories in the south, are actually very close to the wages of the Big Three. They’re between $26 and $28 an hour for Nissan, Honda, Toyota. They all pay competitive wages with the Big Three, in part because that’s been their strategy to try to keep the union out is to provide benefits just as good, at least on the wage front, as the benefits that the Big Three provide their workers. Any sensible investigation of the question, you know, within 30 minutes you get the story, which is that the workers that work in these plants recognize the problems that exist, whether it’s around quality or around, you know, what’s a smart investment strategy. I mean, I’ve talked to countless autoworkers who’ve said time and time again, “Why the hell were we building SUVs and trucks when everybody knows global warming is a real thing, when everybody knows that the oil reserves in the planet are finite and we know when they’re going to run out, and we should be thinking much longer term?” In fact, Monday, there was a caravan of autoworkers that we accompanied from Detroit and four other states to Washington, DC, to tell lawmakers this exact same thing, that they need to be considering much bigger solutions as part of a bailout and be actually pushing the auto companies to consider much more comprehensive changes.
NKWETA: In response to demands for concessions from the UAW over wages, Democratic representative Barnie Frank pointed out a glaring inconsistency in the Republican senator’s logic for killing the bailout when compared to recent bailouts for the financial industry. He was quoted in The Detroit Free Press as saying, “The average worker at AIG makes more than an autoworker…. does anybody remember Citigroup being told that as a condition of its money, they have to get no more than a community banker gets?” [Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA)] One of the most vocal Republican senators, Richard Shelby, made it clear on Wednesday that he would vote down the bill at least in part due to the influence of the union.
SEN. DICK SHELBY (R-AZ): —of what I have seen thus far, some of it, I think that it’s a travesty. I think this bill basically was—you can see the influence of the UAW and you can see the influence of the management of General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler. This is an installment on a huge bailout that will come later. And, of course, I’m going to oppose this, barring a real strong alternative. I would not support this kind of legislation.
BRENNER: Well, I think that’s just been their storyline – from day one is that this is really working class people’s fault. In fact, it’s the unions’ fault that that’s why they are in the predicament that they’re in. And they’ve just used this as a way to basically whip up a frenzy against unions, which has unfortunately served other political purposes.
CHRISTINA JOLLY, WORKER, CHRYSLER TRUCK ASSEMBLY: Union busting. Times are so bad [that] the outgoing senators and lame-duck senators, I believe they’re scared that they have messed up this country so bad that their own people are looking at unionizing and what our right to work states. That’s what I believe. And I thought it was a shame that you would let the backbone of America fall for your own selfish reasons and because you don’t understand what we do inside these gates.
BRENNER: Remember that one of the key pieces of legislation that the labor movement in the United States is hoping to get out of the Obama administration is the Employee Free Choice Act. And so this debate around the auto industry has proven to be a real goldmine for the conservative forces in Congress who just use the union as the whipping post for all of the problems in the auto industry. And so I think in some ways this is just more of the right-wing attack on unions generally, but also with political ends, in this case to try to give a lot of raw meat to the people that are opposed to the Employee Free Choice Act and who are going to work to fight its passage next year once the new Congress is seated.
Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.