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The best way to protect auto industry jobs is to stop making cars

By Don Fitz and Tim Kaminski

In the days when there was an Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers union (OCAW), its St Louis business agent, Bob Tibbs senior, enjoyed coming to Green Party events. He would tell us that his union knew how bad nuclear powerplants were and that it would be happy to get rid of them if workers would be guaranteed jobs of equal pay in other industries. That’s “social unionism”. The union looked beyond wages and working conditions – it asked if what it was producing truly benefited humanity. [1]

Social unionism is most needed in times of crisis. The automobile industry is truly in crisis. According to the February 14, 2009, Wall Street Journal, car sales have dropped to a 30-year low. In November and December, 2008, Ford, General Motors (GM) and Chrysler went to Washington, whining that without tens of billions of dollars in government handouts they would go belly up.

As if the big three automakers had told them what to say, Congress responded that a condition for granting bailout loans must be autoworkers’ surrendering the gains won during the last half century. After a few months of browbeating its membership, United Auto Workers union (UAW) executives indicated their willingness to go along with giving up the right to strike and the slashing of wages, health benefits, job security, Supplemental Employment Benefits and rights of new hires.

Confident that it was successfully using the crisis to bludgeon the union, on February 17, 2009, GM asked for US$16.6 billion, in addition to the $13.4 billion it has already received, and Chrysler sought $5 billion to be put on top of its $4 billion in-pocket. With no thought of protecting jobs via a shorter work week, GM pledged to chop 37,000 production line and 10,000 salaried positions. [2]

The unanswered question was: If the private corporations had so unequivocally demonstrated their inability to manage the auto industry, and if they were putting the entire US economy at risk, why should they not be “de-privatised”  -- taken over by the government -- instead of being rewarded for incompetence? The auto barons have no interest in such a question. Neither Republican nor Democratic party politicians imagined asking it. And UAW honchos did their best to pretend that nationalisation had never entered the mind of the union.

A split personality with two left hands

The response of the labour and social justice left has been to demand protection of the jobs and benefits of those whose work has not already been off-shored. Auto industry militants seek support from other unions to fight any give-backs that union bosses seek to shove down their throats. As news stories blast the opulent squandering of millions by bankers, unionists increasingly ask why should they bear the brunt of the attack on living standards?

Meanwhile, anyone whose head has not been buried in the sand for the last decade knows that the private automobile is at the root of countless environmental evils. Few devices are responsible for more destruction. It’s not just the tens of thousands of fatalities and injuries on the road. Or health disasters in auto factories and their feeder industries, such as oil and steel. It’s more than the enormous contribution of cars to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. Not even adding in the massive toxins that cars pour into the air, resulting in asthma, lung and other diseases tallies the full destructiveness of the private automobile.

Transcending all of these is the automobile being the cornerstone of a culture that sacrifices relationships between people to increasingly frantic “mobility”. Cities are split apart by highways as people live kilometres from their families in sprawling suburbs. The rush-hour drive transforms the eight-hour work day into 10 or even 12 hours away from home.

Of all idols that the corporate mind-set worships, none is more blasphemous that the Tower of Auto. The automobile epitomises a society that makes workers beg for a job that forces them to labour at an increasingly exhausting pace so that they can be dumped when the factory closes, robbed of their healthcare and pensions, and compelled to watch their communities polluted, their children poisoned from toxins and their grandchildren fried from global warming.

Yet, it is not unusual for people to rally to save jobs while having amnesia concerning the environmental catastrophe those jobs embody. And there is certainly nothing unique about an environmental forum that says nothing about work life. Pity the poor leftist who schedules both in the same day, having to remember when to wear the personality of a labour activist who ignores the environment and when to be an environmentalist ignoring labour.

Forward to the past

There was a time, not so many generations ago, when the Knights of Labor and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) proclaimed that labour organisations should never limit themselves to bread and butter issues. Defending basic rights should be a part of imagining what society would be like if it was not ground down by capital. The original labour organisations asked how workers could reorganise industry to benefit society rather than make profit.

Propping up an obsolete technology may seem like it is defending jobs. In the long run, it does nothing of the sort. Tall buildings used to have multiple elevator operators. As push button elevators came in, those jobs were doomed. Demanding that elevator operator positions be maintained could only feed an illusion. It would have been far better to demand, like the OCAW, that elevator operators be guaranteed the transition to a different job.

Automobile production is doomed. The last half of the world’s oil will disappear far more rapidly than did the first half. No fantasy of shale oil, tar sands, hydrogen or the like will save the private automobile. The only salvation for the remaining auto jobs is a complete rethinking of what can replace the production of cars. If auto workers are to be retrained, what would their new jobs be?

If not the private automobile, then …

To say that the “private” car should be abolished does not mean that all automobile manufacturing should cease. There will be plenty of need for vehicles for the disabled, for use in the construction industry, for emergency the services and car sharing. That is totally different to people owning a car for single-occupant personal use. But production for these purposes would be vastly less than the constantly expanding production of private cars and could not absorb all auto jobs.

Automobile plants should be immediately retooled to increase the production of buses and trains as the manufacture of cars declines. This would also result in a lowering of production. The only way that masspublic transport can be efficient is for the total mass of production to be less than that required to move the same number of people in individual cars. The number of jobs created by bus and train manufacture will be less than the number lost by manufacturing fewer cars.

Automobile plants need to be redesigned for environmentally positive production. Production of windmills and solar panels are good options. Increased production of bicycles is important if we are to design cities so people can make 80% of their trips without motor vehicles. Yet, adding non-private vehicles, buses, trains and environmental production will tally a smaller number of jobs than required by existing auto plants.

The obvious solution to preserving jobs is a reduction in the number of hours everybody must work. If we can produce what we need with fewer hours of labour, why don’t all of us work less rather than having some work more than 30 hours a week while others have no job?

Who could make this happen? It’s not likely to be the corporations. Those sitting around waiting for the big three automakers to make a socially responsible decision will get bed sores on their butts.

Maybe the Democratic Party politicians will decide to do the right thing. Or maybe not. After all, it was the Clinton gang that rammed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) through and did everything in its power to outsource US jobs.

What about the UAW officialdom? A big problem is that none of the fundamental changes needed in the US economy are going to happen without nationalising the banks and the automobile companies. Demanding nationalisation would require union bosses to think beyond Roosevelt’s New Deal and they won’t even ask to revive it.

New alliance, old alliance

Wasn’t it 10 short years ago that labour, environmental and human rights activists, along with those supporting rights of indigenous people and many others, came together in Seattle to block the World Trade Organisation? Whatever the limitations of that coalition, it showed that corporate power can be successfully challenged by pulling many struggles together.

The potential for a new alliance is that we all have the same need: a better life with less work and the manufacture of less damaging stuff. Unfortunately, decades of defeat have left very few progressives willing to announce: “The emperor has no clothes!”

With a numbing unanimity of corporations, government and media demanding a “stimulus” package, who will say, “Attempting to jump start the economy by producing more of what we don’t need is the opposite of what should be done”?

Rather than increasing production, we could live vastly better lives by reducing production in a sane, planned way and sharing the necessary work. [3]

Is it too much for auto workers to question their own jobs? Actually, a better way to pose the question is: Why should any group of working people fail to challenge what they do and how they do it? If it is not outrageous for those who work in weapons plants to ask themselves if they should be guaranteed work that does not involve tearing the flesh off of other people’s bodies, then why shouldn’t auto workers ask if they need to be manufacturing something as deadly as the privately owned car? The same applies to steelworkers, lead miners, doctors, nurses, teachers and social workers.

It is not just in the auto industry — working people throughout the country are hurting. Correcting for statistical manipulation by the government, the true unemployment rate in the United States rose from 17.5% in December 2008 to 18% in January 2009. The US unemployment rate has already reached depression levels. [4]

Again correcting for governmental statistical manipulation, the true number of jobless in January 2009 was 716,000. Even if US Presideny Obama’s promised 3 million jobs materialise, the gain will be wiped out in a few months.

We need more cars like we need a new generation of nuclear power plants

We hear unending propaganda equating more cars with more jobs. To build a human economy we do not need a “stimulus” to increase the production of objects that harm us. Sensible economics requires: (a) universal healthcare, (b) universal retirement/unemployment coverage, and (c) guaranteed employment with a [much] shorter work week.

During the CIO organising days, auto workers paved the way in unionising plant after plant. For decades, the UAW was a trendsetter for the rest of labour, demanding pay that would allow workers to own their own homes and send their children to college. Now, a beaten and cowed UAW blazes the trail of union self-destruction.

In the 1930s, labour needed to protect job security, pay and standards of living. Those continue to be essential, but the great task of today is redefining work. The last half of the 20th century saw a continuous reconceptualisation of how to organise everything from transportation to computers to office work. Today, labour will either be in the forefront or the victim of job redesign. Union leaders who insist that labour must have no part in rethinking production trade labour’s birthright for a pottage of lentils.

Auto workers have the ability to again set the bar by proclaiming that labour must be at the centre of redefining jobs, the economy and, most important, working people’s role in establishing a just society. Shouldn’t those who do the work be the first ones to ask how it can be done in a different way or even abolished if it is useless or destructive?

It was no accident that Bob Tibbs senior was a OCAW business agent during the work day and signed people up to the IWW during the weekend. Though Bob died several years ago, his spirit continues to inspire St Louis activists who keep one foot in a languishing union, environmental or civil rights movement while hoping to kindle a dream for a different world.

Now is the time to pull disparate forces together for a program of (a) full employment with (b) fewer hours of work and (c) working people deciding what to produce and how to produce it. The economy, the environment and our society are in too much peril to allow the same corporations who created the mess to continue to make decisions for us.

[Don Fitz is editor of Synthesis/Regeneration and is on the national committee of the Green Party USA. He can be reached at fitzdon@aol.com. Tim Kaminski is a retired committeeperson with United Autoworkers Local 110 and is Green Party candidate for 7th Ward Alderperson in St Louis. He can be reached at mumtazmatin@yahoo.com.]

Notes

1. A description of Bob Tibbs’ work is in Rosemary Feurer’s “The St. Louis Gas Workers History Project & some thoughts on self-activity among workers and historians”, in Fitz, D., & Roediger, D. Within the shell of the old: Essays on workers’ self-organisation. Chicago: Charles H. Kerr Publishing Company, 1990, 37-41.

2. Tablac, A. ``GM, Chrysler lay out plans for survival’’, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 18, 2009, D1–2.

3. Fitz, D.,  ``Production-side environmentalism’’, Synthesis/Regeneration: A Magazine of Green Social Thought. No. 47, Fall, 2008, 2–7. Also at http://links.org.au/node/843.

4. Before 1980 official unemployment figures included “discouraged” workers who had been looking for work for over a year. By removing them from current tabulations, comparisons of unemployment figures pre- and post-1980 are gross misrepresentations. See Roberts, P.C., ``The Washington morons: Driving over the cliff’’, http://www.counterpunch.org/roberts02092009.html

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