Obama Brags on Saving Detroit--But Auto Industry Bailout Came on the Backs of Working People
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The Sit-Down Strike, as it came to be known, ended on February 11, 1937, with a defeat for GM, but for forty-four days the company used every tactic to end the occupation. (Take courage, Occupy Wall Street!) In the dead of winter, owners turned off the heat to the occupied plants. Knowing the strikers depended on “solidarity kitchens,” they cut off food delivery. When police moved in on one of the plants in Flint in January, workers pelted officers with engine parts and police fired back tear gas and bullets, sending twenty-eight injured workers to the hospital. Women formed an Emergency Women’s Brigade. The next time police threatened to storm the plant gates, they found their way blocked by women locking arms—the indomitable “Rolling Pin Army.”
The battles of seventy-five years ago forced GM negotiators to recognize the union as the bargaining agent for the workers, and for a while at least, factory owners across the country negotiated in fear of a sit-down. Seventy-five years later Obama and the Democrats are cheerleading the deal that saved Detroit—and did away with the right to strike, at least temporarily. Now US auto sales are on the rise and with unemployment what it is, the companies say there’s a line around the block for those $14-per-hour entry-level jobs.
“On the plus side we still have US-based auto production,” says Ed Ott, former chair of the New York Central Labor Council. What are union rights going to be like going forward? “The unions say we’ll build back up. Let’s hope they’re right.”
A more likely scenario is $14-per-hour auto jobs are here to stay. If wages in the United States get low enough, they may even draw jobs back from where they’ve gone. As long as no one is looking to raise their taxes employers will see that offshore wages right here save them the trouble and cost of offshoring. What’s it mean for those workers’ families? Unless their low-wage lives are subsidized by more taxpayer dollars in the form of free or low-cost public services, they’re in for pretty lean years. UAW President Bob King (praised for his “flexibility”) is hopeful union strength will return. Heaven knows how.
Lucky us. We missed it the first time. Now, it looks as if we get to experience the Gilded Age all over again—and in another half century or so, some fed up autoworker may decide to sit down and occupy a factory.