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Autoworkers Under the Gun: Why Republicans Demand Worker Concessions (It's Not About Money)

In this excerpt from his new collection of his shop-floor newsletters, union activist Gregg Shotwell rips into the beating workers took during the 2008 auto bailouts.

Most of us remember the auto bailouts—the way Detroit automakers GM and Chrysler were on the brink of disaster (and Ford not too much better) and lots of politicians, fresh off handing billions with no strings attached to the nation's biggest banks, wanted to let them die. With almost no one speaking for the workers, who'd made concession after concession that proved to not be enough for the bosses, the “rescue” of the automakers was taken out of the union's hide—leaving them with a two-tier contract, no right to strike, and deep cuts to benefits that generations of UAW members had fought for.

But if you really want to know the story of the auto bailouts, the decline of the Big Three, you need to know the story of those workers. And Gregg Shotwell was documenting all of it in his Live Bait & Ammo newsletters, which are now collected in a new book from Haymarket Books titled Autoworkers Under the Gun: A Shop-Floor View of the End of the American Dream.

In vital, clear prose that hits like a fist to the jaw, Shotwell, a UAW rank-and-file activist, chronicles the struggles within and without the shop, dissent within the UAW ranks and the constant threat of layoffs, downsizing, spinoffs, and any other form of union-busting that management could come up with. He starts in 1999 at the UAW bargaining convention, and finishes up in 2009, in post-bailout America, in the brave new world we've been left with after the financial crisis. While telling a depressing story, Shotwell's take is invigorating—while he's a fierce critic of the UAW leadership, ultimately, he reminds us, “The power of organized labor can change the world.”

Below is an excerpt from the book, a segment from 2008, at the time of the auto bailouts.

-Sarah Jaffe, AlterNet Labor Editor


Legacy Profits Outweigh Legacy Costs

(December 19, 2008)

After the first bailout was voted down, President Bush warned that if we didn’t hand over seven hundred billion dollars, the house of cards would fall and all the king’s cronies couldn’t put it back together again. Since all the cronies on Capitol Hill had a face card in the deck, the pyramid scheme was reinforced with unctuous indignation and promissory notes.

But on the day the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that we lost five hundred and thirty-three thousand jobs, more than in any month in the 124-year history of the BLS, President Bush shrugged and essentially said, What’s a few million more?

With poker face in place, Bush told the TV machine, “I’m concerned about investing taxpayers’ money in companies that might not survive.” Which may lead the common citizen to wonder: What’s the difference between Citibank, AIG, Bear Stearns and a company like General Motors? Sweat, products, torn ligaments, products, constructive labor, products, herniated discs, products, practical skills, products, carpal tunnel and—did I mention—“products” as opposed to unsecured securities, uninsured insurance, and debt financed with debt?

Credit where credit is due: Bush is the biggest bullshitter on the planet.

Like most folks who work for a living, I think management is organizationally impaired, logically deficient, structurally unsound, impractical, and dedicated to the pursuit of deception. General Motors is no exception, and Congress is like GM without a budget.

If Congress had had the integrity to raise taxes on gas like Europe and Japan, the market would demand fuel-efficient vehicles. The failure of Congress to legislate responsibly tipped the table in favor of our competitors. Congress was shortsighted and is as much to blame for the glut of SUVs as the Detroit Three—Alibi, Plea, Deny—and their sidekick with the runny nose.