Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Does GM have a "Union Problem"?

If only. The UAW is a toothless, invertebrate shell of what it once was. Its leadership is a paradigm example of everything that's wrong with the labor movement: lifeless top-down bureaucratization, collaborationist "business unionism", lack of rank and file organization, etc.

Of course, that's not the way the bourgeois press sees it. No matter how weak, ineffective and powerless the union may have become, it is always the favored bogey man when the auto industry is discussed. This recent NY Times piece is no exception. The basic line argued in the article is that GM is "turning auto making on its head" by producing a sub-compact car, employing fewer workers and paying them half of the union wage. These measures are all billed as progressive and innovative, of course. And, according to the article, they even have the added "benefit" of having won the assent of the UAW who, we're told, is finally willing to "cooperate". Freed from the chains of workplace democracy, GM has finally found a way to spread its wings and do things its own way.

This "progressive" narrative draws on a number of false premises. I'll discuss only two.

The first is that higher wages for auto workers means worse cars (hence why lowering the wages of the workers in the production of the sub-compact car makes for a "better" product). The second is connected to the first: it is implied that the union impedes innovation and hinders the production of world-class cars (hence GM's foray into the hitherto unexplored US sub-compact market was only possible given the newly "cooperative" attitude of the typically stubborn UAW).

The "evidence" typically marshaled in defense of the first premise is that companies other than the Big Three make "better" cars because they aren't handicapped by a union that wins benefits, pensions, and decent wages for its members. This is, of course, false. European car manufacturing is a heavily unionized industry. In Germany, workers are paid more than their counterparts in the US and get 8 weeks paid vacation each year. And French auto workers unions have been known to show a bit of militancy now and again. Likewise, the Japanese auto industry is heavily unionized as well, winning health benefits and decent wages for its members while the owners of Japanese auto firms continue to do quite well. Korean auto workers are also unionized, as you may recall from this struggle a few years back. Note that none of the hacks in the US press who rail against the UAW ever make the argument that European and Japanese automakers are handicapped by their unionized workforces. That's because they aren't. (I note in passing that a similar phenomenon occurs in arguments about education policy, where pro-corporate anti-teacher zealots blame US teachers unions for everything wrong with public education while pointing (often unknowingly) to successful European schools that are, in fact, unionized). That these facts about auto unions elsewhere in the world aren't ever discussed speaks to the distorted picture propagated by our corporate-friendly media.

The second false premise is even more far-fetched than the first. It is more insinuation than cogent argument, since there is no plausible mechanism that could possibly explain how the members of the UAW are directly responsible for investment, design and marketing decisions made by higher ups. As everyone knows, workers don't make those decisions: they do what they're told. As with any other capitalist firm, GM and others are anything but internally democratic. They are hierarchically organized firms, with investors and their surrogates perched at the top, and workers at the bottom. All of the major decisions about investment and production (e.g. whether to close operations, whether to cut back, what to produce and how to market it, etc.) are made by the representatives of the ownership of the corporations in question. Just think about it: when Ralph Nader criticized GM for making unsafe cars in the 60s, it wasn't as if he was indicting the auto workers on the shop floor. He was clearly criticizing those who made the decision to place profit above the needs of human beings, i.e. the owners of the auto corporations. Were the UAW to ask for serious decision-making power in these matters, it would be sharply rebuffed. Yet, despite being denied the power to influence the design of automobile production, auto workers singled out and blamed for the bad design and business decisions made by their employer.

That is, they are blamed for doing things they are denied the power to do. It's a "heads I win, tails you lose" kinda deal. It's nothing more than a lazy externalization of culpability by the capitalists who own the auto industry.

So once you set aside these two false premises underpinning the ruling class narrative about union sabotage, what's left?

Well, for one, we're left with no good argument against the UAW. All we're left with is naked class interests. On the ruling class side, it's obvious why the UAW is "bad". It cuts into profits, it is still strong enough to at least attenuate the rate of exploitation of its workers, and so forth. It would be much better from the perspective of auto Capital if the workers were divided, atomized, and unable to collectively bargain at all, since this would make for much lower wages, no benefits, no pensions, etc. And, of course, every cut to workers pay is an earning for the ownership. Keep in mind we're not talking about folks that are barely making ends meet. We're talking about multi-millionaires fighting tooth and nail to make a couple extra million by screwing workers.

On the working class side, however, the situation is much different. In it's heyday, the UAW was able to set the bar for the entire US working class in terms of wages, benefits, pensions, and job security. Auto workers were able to achieve a modest level of economic security, retire at a reasonable age, and enjoy reasonably good health benefits (though, to be sure, US-style for-profit health insurance is perilous even if you have "good" benefits). Moreover, shop floor safety was dramatically increased while the employer's tyrannical control of time was challenged by workers. From the perspective of any working person, these are all extremely good things to have. Of course, all of these benefits depended upon the strength of the union to exact these compromises from the ownership. None of these gains for workers were won with sweet-talk, moral suasion, or "cooperation". They were won by way of struggle. Thus, when the strength and militancy of the union recedes, so does it's ability to defend the decent wages, benefits, and so on that it won in the past. Thus, we see that the so-called "American Dream" of earning some measure of relative economic security as a worker rests precariously on an unstable compromise between capital and labor.

The same is true of the welfare state writ large: the reformist, Keynesian phase of capitalism that persisted from 1945-1973 was the result of strong labor movements combined with high levels of capital accumulation. When the global economic system went into crisis in the early 1970s, the ruling class pulled out of the compromise and began an all-out broadside against labor in an effort to drive wages down to restore profit rates to pre-crisis levels. Smashing labor was only one prong of this ruling class strategy that would come to be known as "neoliberalism". Other prongs included slashing business regulation, privatization, liberalizing trade, cutting taxes for the rich, smashing the welfare state, and cutting social expenditure.

The bottom line here is this. Capitalist production is production for profit. Not profit for all, but profit for capitalists. Thus, when inevitable contradiction surface (e.g. between the need for stable working-class employment and the ruling class need for high profitability), we shouldn't be surprised. Nor should we assume there are simple solutions that can resolve such contradictions within the basic framework of capitalist production. In such cases we need to think outside the box: What should the basic function of the auto industry be? What should it's basic goals be? Who should get to decide? Any honest appraisal of these questions leads us quickly out of the ideological straitjacket imposed by capitalism. For example, if society has an interest in the production of hybrid buses and wind turbines that can be manufactured by auto workers... and auto workers have an interest in secure employment with decent wages and fair conditions.... why should there be any need for capitalists at all? Why can't society and auto workers decide, together, and without the interference of the vested interests of capitalists, how to move forward in a way that works for all concerned parties? Put in this way, it becomes obvious that the owners are nothing more than tyrannical
parasites who perform no useful social function. After all, why couldn't workers elect managers and self-govern production themselves while determining pay-scales collectively through some democratic procedure? Answer: because this means dethroning the capitalists who own the auto industry. And no ruler wants to be removed from their perch- they won't go without a fight, no matter how much everyone else wants them gone.

The moral of the story here can be reduced to a left-wing slogan popularized during May 68 in Paris: "The boss needs you, but you don't need the boss" (see above for the picture).

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You don't mention it in the post, but it's worth mentioning that European auto workers (esp. French and German) receive healthcare as citizens, not as employees of their particular firm. These countries have genuine universal healthcare Thus, the cost of healthcare is shared accross the entire capitalist class, not just by the auto industry. This gives German and French automakers a competitive advantage, hence one reason why there are tariffs blocking the sale of many German and French cars in the US.