When I awoke
on Friday morning, December 12th, I turned on my computer. The first
thing I saw was that the deal being worked on in the Senate to provide
the automobile companies with loans had fallen through. The explanation
offered on MSN: the United Auto Workers (UAW) refused to take a
I found myself furious about
the situation. Let us be clear that the deal did not
fall through because the UAW had refused a pay cut. The deal fell
through because the Republicans, who had consistently opposed the
loan effort, seek to drive the auto companies into bankruptcy so
that they can destroy the UAW. Those leading the charge against
the proposed loan (which has been misnamed a “bailout”) publicly
seek to force the UAW to accept the same wage rate as the non-union
(foreign) auto facilities which, by coincidence, are located in
many of the states of these Republican Senators.
situation is filled with irony. The UAW, a once proud union that
played a major role in elevating Black (and other) auto workers
out of poverty, has been in a fairly consistent retreat since the
early 1980s. At that time the leadership of the UAW chose to engage
in what they saw as a partnership or “jointness” with the auto company
owners. As such, the UAW offered concession after concession to
the auto companies, infuriating much of their own membership, but
justified by the leadership as helping the companies to stay afloat.
In fact, in the most recent collective bargaining agreement signed
by the UAW with the Big Three, there was a MAJOR concession offered
(and accepted) which resulted in a two-tier situation. Two tier
means that new employees would not receive the same wages and benefits
of current employees. Again, this was done in the name of saving
jobs and saving the companies, but it further weakened the UAW in
the eyes of many of its own members and many of its friends.
For the right-wing Republicans,
these concessions were not good enough. It was not good enough that
the UAW had been virtually brought to their knees. The Republicans
wanted the UAW on all fours, kissing the ground. This is what was
at stake in their undermining a loan deal in Congress. The UAW leadership
obviously concluded that they had retreated as far as they were
going to retreat, at least for the moment, and that they were not
going to accept further humiliations.
The contrast in the treatment
of the auto companies with the Wall Street bailout has been elaborated
upon by countless writers. It is the height of hypocrisy. Whereas
Wall Street was asked for NO plans; was not asked to cut any salaries;
and was given funds outright with NO significant public oversight,
the exact opposite was the case with the auto loans.
It is no exaggeration that an
auto collapse will have a dramatic impact on the already dire economic
situation we are experiencing, a crisis that may be evolving from
a recession into a depression. Many other industries depend on the
auto industry, so it is not just auto jobs that are at stake. In
addition, this will mean an increase in job loss for African Americans,
already a population which has suffered disproportionately
as a result of the millions of jobs lost in manufacturing over the
unapologetically believe that the auto companies need to get the
interim loans with public oversight. I also believe that more needs
to be done: the US
auto industry needs to be nationalized. I do not think that
the auto companies’ leaderships have the capability and vision to
build the sort of new industries that the USA
so desperately needs. Not only do we need the production of higher
performance, fuel efficient automobiles, we actually need fewer
automobiles. We need light-rail vehicles; new inter-city transportation;
and greater experiments in hydrogen power. This needs to be directed
by the federal government as part of what I would suggest is a national
economic AND environmental emergency.
That said, the fight for the
immediate survival of the auto companies should be a battle that
the UAW itself is conducting publicly, loudly and militantly. Frankly,
I do not see it unfolding at the moment and I am a bit mystified.
The UAW leadership seems to have gone out of its way to operate
under the cape of the auto companies rather than staking out any
independent turf of its own. Worse, when UAW President Ron Gettelfinger
has been publicly asked about the mismanagement of the auto companies
- a softball question that should have been knocked out of the park
- he walks around the answer. Instead of pointing out the shortsightedness
of the auto owners in the cars they have built, their approach to
emission standards and fuel consumption, Gettelfinger has done dances
that would put a smile on the face of the late Gregory Hines.
On top of all of this, the UAW,
which remains an important and large union, has done little to mobilize
its members into the streets to make their case. The only face we
see is that of Gettelfinger, and particularly for those of us of
color, unless you have an auto worker in your family, you could
forget that a substantial proportion of the auto workforce is African
American and Latino!
The lack of UAW visibility and
militancy weakens their case. Instead
of being an independent force and voice for the auto workers, they
have ended up looking more like a lobby for the auto companies.
None of this, however, should take away from the fact that the loans
need to be instituted and that serious consideration should be given
by the incoming Obama administration to nationalization.
I just want to see the UAW make
plain THEIR case and touch the hearts of people of the USA
who are completely fed up with Wall Street, the Bush administration,
and the cavalier antics of corporate America.
The UAW has allies across this country if they - the UAW - are prepared
to throw down.
Executive Editor, Bill Fletcher, Jr., is a Senior Scholar with the
Institute for Policy Studies,
the immediate past president of TransAfrica
Forum and co-author of, Solidarity Divided: The Crisis in Organized Labor and
a New Path toward Social Justice
(University of California Press), which examines the crisis of organized
labor in the USA. Click here
to contact Mr. Fletcher.