[Marxism] Fwd: The Auto Crisis: Placing Our Own Alternative on the Table
bbauerly at gmail.com
Thu Apr 9 11:28:25 MDT 2009
---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: The Bullet <lists at socialistproject.ca>
Date: Thu, Apr 9, 2009 at 8:46 AM
Subject: The Auto Crisis: Placing Our Own Alternative on the Table
To: bauerly at bc.edu
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~(((( T h e B u l l e t ))))~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
A Socialist Project e-bulletin .... No. 200 .... April 9, 2009
The Auto Crisis:
Placing Our Own Alternative on the Table
Deep economic crises violently interrupt daily lives and force more radical
responses onto the public agenda. In the case of the North American auto
industry however, that radicalism has been remarkably one-sided. Absent an
alternative of their own, workers were (and remain) trapped by their
dependency on ‘their’ corporations becoming stronger. On the one hand,
corporations and governments have aggressively attacked auto workers and
effectively ended their status as the trend-setters for working class
gains; on the other, there has been virtually no work interruptions or
effective political response from the auto unions.
In the now 100 years since Henry Ford first introduced the assembly line
(1908), only the Great Depression matches the present crisis in terms of
its impact on the U.S.-based auto companies, their suppliers, and the
workers and communities involved. At that time, workers responded with the
breakthrough of industrial unionism. Can auto workers respond as creatively
The Road to Nowhere
At his first press conference after replacing the former head of General
Motors, GM's new Chief Executive Officer seemed to offer some relief to
Canadian auto workers. The new collective agreement in Canada, Fritz
Henderson declared, made the Canadian workforce “fully competitive with the
UAW” (Globe and Mail, March 31, 2009).
The catch of course was that this was not the end of the story. Soon
Henderson was warning that, “We need to go further, you can't really afford
to take anything off the table” (CNN's “State of the Union”). Part of
shunting Richard Wagoner, the former head of GM aside was to put more
pressure on the UAW to reopen their agreement and make even more
concessions. And as that occurs, GM will surely return with more demands on
It used to be that corporations promised jobs for concessions; now they
aggressively demand more concessions alongside fewer jobs. That earlier
trade-off was of course always a myth. Concessions don't save jobs because
in a capitalist economy, corporations driven by profits and limited by
competition or consumer demand won't or can't deliver on job guarantees.
At the end of the 1970s, when the first round of concession bargaining
began in the U.S., the UAW had 450,000 members at GM. Today, after repeated
contracts that allegedly ‘won’ job security in exchange for workplace,
wage, or benefit concessions – sold by the union as well as the companies –
the UAW's GM membership is down to 64,000. If GM is ‘successful’ in its
current restructuring, that will be further reduced to 40,000. Thirty years
of concessions and a 90% loss in jobs. If ever there was a failing strategy
for workers, this was it.
Concessions don't save jobs, but they inherently invite more concessions.
What corporation wouldn't take advantage of this freebie? What corporation,
even if it planned to make a new investment, wouldn't now hold back and ask
for new concessions?
That push for concessions, alongside the spread layoffs as corporations
manoeuvre to restore their individual profits, undermines the official
government policy of throwing money into the economy to ‘stimulate’ demand
and create jobs. In fact, the government has itself aggravated this
contradiction by insisting on worker concessions as a condition for
providing loans to the auto companies.
The illogic of all this is, however, not exposed if no substantive
alternative is raised. Union leaders can publically deny worker
responsibility for the crisis, but as long as workers passively accept
concessions, what gets confirmed is that the problem must be workers. The
public debate consequently revolves around how much compensation should be
The greatest danger for workers is that the acceptance of concessions
represents not just a temporary setback, but also a more permanent defeat.
To the extent that concessions lower expectations, undercut arguments for
why others should join a union, and risk the erosion of worker confidence
in collective action, workers and their unions move into the future
disoriented and weakened.
For all these reasons, and because the very focus on workers as the problem
diverts attention from solutions that might save jobs, concessions are a
road to nowhere.
Instead of waiting to see what else the corporations put on the table,
workers need to put their own alternatives on the table. What follows is
one such alternative.
Though the overwhelming attention has been on GM and Chrysler, hundreds of
tool and die shops and component plants have been padlocked and hundreds
more are teetering on the brink (“Bankruptcy Looms Larger Across Sector,”
Globe and Mail, April 6, 2009; “About 500 auto suppliers at risk for
failure,” Reuters, March 12, 2009). The ‘market’ or the owners of these
plants have deemed them to be no longer profitable. But from a social
perspective, these facilities represent the very kind of productive
potential that any country worried about its productive base desperately
needs to hang on to.
These plants must not be allowed to close or to see their tools and
equipment gutted or shipped elsewhere – especially in the middle of a deep
economic crisis. Any plant that is closed or on a path to being phased out
should be expropriated in the social interest and placed in the hands of a
new public corporation. (One worker suggested we call it Canada at Work,
but the acronym – CAW – has already been taken).
In itself, it's not clear what would ultimately be produced given the
current lack of demand and excess capacity in the auto industry. So this
could only work if there was a government commitment – a plan – for a new
set of needs. An obvious project is to focus not on the work already gone
but to the future: link these plants to the broader conversions which
environmental sustainability will require through the rest of this 21st
If we are serious about incorporating environmental needs into the economy,
this means changing everything about how we produce and consume and how we
travel and live. The potential work to be done in this regard – in the tool
and die shops that are closing, the component plants that have the capacity
to make more than a specific component, and by a workforce anxious to do
useful work – is limitless.
The equipment and skills can be used to not only build different cars, and
different car components, but to expand public transit and develop new
transportation systems. They can participate in altering, in line with
environmental demands, the machinery in every workplace and the motors that
run the machinery. They can be applied to new systems of production that
recycle used materials and final products (such as cars). Homes will have
to be retrofitted and appliances modified. The use of solar panels and wind
turbines will spread, new electricity grids will have to be developed, and
urban infrastructure will have to be reinvented to accommodate the changes
in transportation and energy use.
What better time to launch such a project than now, in the face of having
to overcome both the immediate economic crisis and the looming
environmental crisis? And what greater opportunity to insist that we cannot
lose valuable facilities and equipment, nor squander the creativity,
knowledge and abilities of engineers, skilled trades and production
What About GM, Chrysler and Even Ford?
This proposal would only work if it had the support of the workers affected
– and that support would have to be especially strong and mobilized given
how much resistance the formation of such a public corporation, with such a
significant mandate, would imply.
Building that support seems feasible enough where workers have lost or are
about to lose their jobs. At some point, this may also be possible within
the Detroit Three, given the failures workers have experienced within these
companies (the costs of excess competition, the waste of duplicated models,
the slowness to respond to environmental realities, the ultimate disregard
for the workforce in these industries). But as of now, the insecurities –
not just regarding jobs, but also over pensions and health care plans –
make it difficult to quickly win over workers who are still working at
going concerns like GM, Chrysler and Ford.
Yet this proposal also carries great importance to workers who remain
outside its structure. The dynamic development of environmental productive
capacities could contribute to (and accelerate) the auto companies'
necessary transition to different types of vehicles. And such a structure
provides back-up security for these workers as well. As further plants
close at the former 'Big Three' – and they will – workers wouldn't be left
simply lamenting the loss of their livelihood; they could mobilize for
their plants to be incorporated into the new structure.
Furthermore, as companies like Chrysler try to blackmail Canadian workers
and governments by threatening to leave the country if they don't get
proportionately more than even GM got, the pressures would be somewhat
eased if an alternative existed. And if the companies go into bankruptcy –
whether in the near-term or later – the alternative of bringing the
companies as a whole into the public domain might develop broader support.
But Is This Realistic?
This is an historic moment that challenges us to think big or suffer even
worse defeats. Faced with immediate needs, workers and their union have too
often shied away from taking on larger issues of social change that seemed
too abstract, too distant, too intimidating. The lesson however is that if
we only focus on the immediate, the options we have are always limited. We
are all now paying the price of that failure to think bigger.
This is a moment when the elite – from the financiers through the Detroit
auto executives and all those pushing the virtues of letting greed run free
– have lost credibility. Yet it is the labour movement that is on the
defensive and getting hammered. In this context, what is truly unrealistic
is not new options, but the notion that stumbling through the present
crisis will preserve past gains or bring new security.
Being realistic means resolving the crisis not so much in terms of saving
the corporations, but as saving productive capacities and the economic base
of our communities. And rather than speaking only (or at least primarily)
for the members still working, it means also addressing the job needs of
all those already, or about to be, laid off.
Being realistic means taking on a new and necessary fight – daring to put
something new on the table. Rather than perpetuating our dependence on
markets, competition, private corporations and the values and pressures
they represent, this proposal builds on the first principle of unionism –
organizing around our own, independent vision of how ‘progress’ is defined.
It means reviving the best of working class leadership: unions seen as not
only negotiating for their members but raising the largest issues on behalf
of their members and society as a whole.
Being realistic means taking hope out of speeches and putting it in the
hands of workers. Workers have courageously taken over their plants only to
end up 'winning most of the severance they were owed' (as a CAW press
release put it); they should be encouraged and inspired to demand that the
facilities are kept in operation and they be allowed to do productive work.
And alongside this, it means that the need for work should not have to be
traded off for accepting inferior working conditions – in fact, demanding
social control over production might be a first step in going beyond
defensive demands and thinking about what a truly democratic workplace
might look like.
The alternative raised here will, as any significant change must, throw up
new problems around democracy, accountability and balancing difficult
choices. And it needs to be emphasized that this alternative is less a
‘technical’ solution than a political one in the sense that it challenges
the status quo of property rights in the name of democratic and social
rights, and demands a cultural change in how we think of the economy and
possibilities. It can't succeed, or even really begin, if it isn't part of
the widest degree of discussion and debate from below, mobilization within
and across unions, a clear identification of allies, and strategies for
building new worker, union and community capacities. •
Sam Gindin teaches political economy at York University, Toronto.
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Brad A. Bauerly
bauerly at yorku.ca
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