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

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.

What was Gettelfinger doing there? Alibi, Plea, and Deny wanted to show Congress how well trained he was. As usual, the working class, the one party who bore no responsibility for this colossal failure, wasn’t reserved a place at the table. Unless you count the one on the leash.

Republicans, who paraded “Joe the Plumber” on the campaign trail, demonstrated that they despise labor in general and organized labor in particular. They accused UAW members of making too much money and bargaining successfully for health care and pensions. They referred to retiree benefits as “entitlements.” As if we didn’t earn those benefits. As if the nature of our work—production, as opposed to paper shuffling—rendered us ineligible for deferred compensation. As if people who actually produce a good or service don’t deserve such basic amenities as health care. As if dignity in retirement was reserved for those who never got grease under their fingernails. As if a wage that allowed you to pay the bills on time and send your children to college offended the capitalist creed. As if legally binding contracts with workers were toilet paper. As if the right to bargain collectively was illegal.

Their analogies to the transplants were deceptive. The main reason the transplants aren’t organized is that they pay as well or better than UAW contracts. The accusations of undeserved legacy costs ignore the other side of the ledger: legacy profits. Profits that were pocketed by executives, doled out to shareholders, and invested overseas at the expense of American workers and the deferred compensation they earned. Legacy profits far outweigh legacy costs. From 1994 to 2003, GM made $104 billion in profit, not including investments in new plants overseas and acquisitions of foreign companies like Fiat. How much was set aside for retiree health care?

A portion of legacy profits should have been invested in a trust to ensure that the burden of retirement benefits wouldn’t be shouldered by the next generation. But according to the capitalist custom of class privilege, sharing profits with workers is derided as uncompetitive, while sharing profits with management and investors is lauded as just rewards. For the rich, money is an incentive; for the poor, it’s a moral hazard. The diversion of profits to nonworking people is the fundamental fraud of the free-market system.

The Republicans’ unbridled contempt for workers revealed an underlying agenda: the humiliation and degradation of labor. We weren’t criticized for incompetence. We were maligned for earning a good living. We were vilified for violating their fundamental belief that we aren’t equal as a class.

When it comes to wages, there is no bottom to the bottom line. They won’t be satisfied until we are all on our knees and begging to work for food. In their eyes, unequal status under the law doesn’t stop with immigrants. All workers should be at the whim and mercy of their employers. All workers should be an underclass.

Their underlying agenda is to manipulate “Joe the Plumber” for political democracy while they deprive the working class of economic democracy. What good is the right of citizenship if those rights are revoked as soon as you punch the time clock? What is the value of the right to vote for rich people to represent you if you can’t support your family?

Their real agenda is to bust unions, like Reagan did to PATCO,* and turn collective bargaining into collective concession-making. Their real agenda is to strip the working class of health care, steal their pensions, and whipsaw them with the threat of termination.

* The air traffic controllers’ union destroyed by President Ronald Reagan during a 1981 strike.


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