The UAW began a nationwide strike yesterday against GM. It was the first since 1976 and it may well be one of their last.
I have been working for one of the Big Three for the last 7 years in a position in which I am aware of almost every location that they own, lease or sublease in the world. When I passed the GM plant on my way into work today there were a total of four guys walking a lonely, pathetic looking picket line at the front entrance with signs that didn’t explain why they were striking at all. They just said “UAW on strike”.
On my way home there were only two people walking the line. It is almost as if they are trying to fit the stereotype of the lazy, greedy union member who just wants to strike to get out of work and get more money.
This may well be the last dying gasp for Organized Labor in America.
At first it was speculated that the strike would be about the auto companies trying to push the cost of their health care expenses for retirees off on the unions, which cannot possibly end well for the retirees themselves since the unions are in worse financial shape then the struggling auto companies.
Instead they decided to use the opportunity to raise a larger issue, The Right of the People to Work. The right of the people to organize as labor and represent themselves on a more equal level with the global superpowers that today’s multi-national corporations have become.
According to the statement on their website, the UAW went to strike over a number of issues , “job security, economic issues, benefits for active workers and winning investment in future products”.
What the UAW is really fighting against the idea that Americans should lower their standards to those of the workers in the Chinese sweatshops if we want to compete in the global marketplace.
The Milton Friedman disciples, The Corporatists, who believe in a non-existent, quasi-mystical “free market” that can support itself with no government regulation to back up its legitimacy, say that American workers are lazy and greedy for wanting to cut into the profits of Capital and demand all those pesky, “expensive” rules about “trivial” matters such as safety and quality. They say that there should be no “barriers” to trade like Tariffs and Taxes, at least not for America. Everyone else can protect their economies and their jobs all they want, just not us Americans. The Corporatists say we have to leave ourselves economically defenseless in order to “compete”.
Globalization is destroying the middle class in America and that is really what the UAW is striking against, even though they aren’t framing it that way. They are striking against the Conservative ideology that says Americans should have to compete for our jobs with peasants in Chile and China who don’t have any of those “expensive” government regulated workplace standards.
Thirty years ago Trade Unions comprised about 27% of the workforce, but today they only represent about 7%… and they were struggling to win any concessions thirty years ago.
They don’t stand a chance today. Not unless something radical happens.
When I started there, the Auto Companies had two different types of plants in North America, “Manufacturing”, where the metal was cast and the parts were actually made, and “Assembly” where the parts were assembled and rolled off the line a finished product.
In my time there, I have watched as all the “Manufacturing” jobs have been moved out of the United States and down into Mexico and South America. A couple of years a ago a group of IT employees from various South American plants came to our Headquarters for a series of meetings. During their time here, I got to know several of them. They told me about the conditions at the plants in South America where they manufacture our auto parts now. They all told me about large security forces in all their properties, usually armed with automatic weapons. At one plant, which was built miles away from town for “security” reasons, they pay the people so little that they cannot afford to go home during the week so there is a shanty-town set up of tents and lean-tos outside the fences of the plant property where the employees live during the week in their off time. They told me about how the plant management drives in every day in a large, black SUV, always with their armed escorts. At another plant, I was told that they have a large bin of used shoes for the employees at the entrance because they don’t make enough money to buy themselves new shoes. These are the “cost-saving” measures enacted by most multi-national corporations in the last couple of decades in order to keep increasing their profits.
All that is left in North America are the assembly jobs. Why is that important? Because manufacturing is the hard part to move to another country, it requires secure supply lines, access to raw materials, which have to be processed, and that process produces a lot more waste than assembly does. Waste, which has to be dealt with somehow. Manufacturing is the dirty work. It is the really dangerous work. They deal with the molten metal and the processing of raw material. Most importantly, manufacturing is usually considered the EXPENSIVE work.
Manufacturing is the work that requires a lot more of those “costly” worker safety standards and it is the harder to send overseas because it requires a whole supply chain of raw materials that is harder to deal with then the pre-made, pre-packaged parts are that arrive at the assembly plant in their neat stacks on pallets. Once they move manufacturing overseas, then “tightening the supply chain” and moving the assembly closer to the manufacturing simply excused as a “cost-savings” measure.