Auto Salvation and Restructuring – Only the Workers Can Make it Happen


12-17-08, 9:52 am

The collapse of the congressional short-term bailout of the imperiled US auto industry brings us to a crossroads. The immediate cause was right-wing Republican demands to kill the UAW as the price tag for its support – demanding that it pre-authorize big cuts in benefits and wages and essentially forget about retiree obligations before any negotiations on 'restructuring' or loans could begin. This demand, not surprisingly, originated from states with heavy concentrations of foreign automobile manufacturing. Bob Corker – the Senator from Nissan, Tennessee who narrowly won election through a race-baiting campaign against Harold Ford Jr in 2006 – led the charge. It is clear that much of the same group that voted against the bridge loans to auto are pinning their hopes of protecting the rich who were not ruined by crisis on Wall Street by hiding under the cover of a perceived widespread aversion to 'nationalization,' or more socialism. For sure the effects of decades of anti-communist, anti-socialist, anti-social-democratic propaganda permeating most US institutions should not be understated, but that legacy has taken a significant hit below the waterline. The question is: is it strong enough to paralyze the government from acting decisively? For US auto workers – decisive is the key word, and it is the Chicago sit-down strikers that come to mind when I think about decisive, and about how workers can compell powerful forces – like the president-elect of the United States – to recognize and support their legitimate interests and rights. I am not focusing on the particular tactic in the Bank of America struggle, only on the need for workers to exert whatever force they have to strikingly demonstrate to the public the overwhelming public interest in saving the US auto (and manufacturing) industries. Contrary to Senator Corker's smokescreen about union wages, the real impediment to a bailout to the auto industry are the owners and executives. They have pursued a failed business model for years based on the assumption that easy credit and cheap oil would make Americans (and others) by an unlimited number of fuel inefficient cars. The truth is they must all be disenfranchised and fired before a public bailout has any long-term credibility. Which raises the question: Who will run the new 'American Car Company'? The answer depends in large part on exactly what the 'American Car Company' is going to produce. Since what kind of product people use to travel in implictly determines the kind of transportation system options you have, the future of the 'American Car Company' is closely linked to the size and kind of infrastructure stimulus is enacted. The known requirements are: a) fuel efficient and designed to more easily accommodate alternative fuel systems; b) compatible with light rail and denser housing development; c) relieved of legacy health and retirement costs; d) medical coverage as federal employees; e) high tech; f) sell at a competitive price on world markets; g) somehow not violate the WTO prohibition against 'hidden, unverifiable subsides' in traded commodities that would destabilize trade agreements to the detriment of US partners. The job description for the new management is formiddable. From the point of view of the existing workforce there is are powerful arguments – which only they can make heard – in concentrating reinvestment and restructuring in the existing auto communities. Here are the engineering, research, and labor resources. Here is a strong political base for a renewal of manufacturing.
Of course, in a nationalized (in whole or in part – the key is 'decisive'!) industry the role of workers organizations can change. In this writers view the most important change is to align worker incentives such that they have a substantial stake and voice in the surplus created, especially as required to maintain income rising in an agreed upon proportion to productivity. Its Christmas, and of course, GM management is doing its very hard bargaining – on top of dismal sales of autos worldwide – by announcing a shutdown for January. To me it seems reasonable that the facilities could remain safe from harm by both absence and enemies (like owners and creditors liquidating everything they can before bankruptcy proceedings begin in earnest) if perhaps they remain guarded and occupied – hosting an extended peoples holiday party and encampment, so to speak.