Wednesday, April 1, 2009


Op-ed to Seattle Times

David Wolach
March 30, 2009

Little over a week ago, the Obama administration's rationale, vociferously backed by Congress post-facto, for last minute "adjustments" to the Stimulus Bill (which most people fluent in American Capitalism have called "a loophole" that allowed AIG to pay out huge sums of money to its incompetent middle management), the excuse for these smooth middle of the night tweaks, was that government simply cannot break contracts between employer and employee willy nilly. Such contracts (which most people fluent in American Capitalism have called "bonuses") were "iron clad" and there would be "many lawsuits" if Treasury just went in with a jackhammer and retroactively nullified those contracts. By now we all know that this language protecting AIG bigwigs was inserted when most in Congress were asleep at their desks after a long night of "working on behalf of the people." The bill passed, and now about thirty major financial players in our current recession are getting death threats, or, on occasion, being asked to commit suicide by apparently homicidal Senate Republicans. Okay, fast forward a week. Obama's on television announcing what all of us from hard-working union families feared his administration might announce: that the American auto industry does not "qualify" at this moment in time for Federal assistance (read: no more big bad bailouts), and major restructuring, including "difficult concessions" by the workers will have to be made (read: structured bankruptcy where the workers carry the heaviest burden).

So, let me get this right: it's perfectly fine to open up and gut mutually hard-fought, and lawful union contracts, but Wall Street bonuses are sacred, they're irreversible, they were earned! For over a week I've gone to bed trying to figure out the consistency for this argument. Then today it hit me: this is Washington Politics (sound of hand slapping forehead)! Washington Politics does not use logic the way ordinary Americans do. So, after a great deal of patience, like many left wingers taken slipped a Temporary Democrat pill, I'm finally outraged. There's been a lot of talk on the Republican side about "class warfare." And they're half right--class warfare has indeed become more visible lately. The problem is, it's not true, as the Republicans would have it, that the Obama administration is fighting on behalf of workers, i.e., the working and middle class, i.e., people--at the expense of "the more well to do" (read: the rich) and has therefore predicated the "war." Precisely the opposite: if one looks at his policy rather than his rhetoric, Obama and his administration have drawn a line in the sand: we will be protecting Wall Street interests it says, we will be protecting our political interests, at the expense of working families. Period. By breaking the UAW (and other manufacturing unions tied to the auto sector), one of the oldest, most respected collection of hard-working people in this country--in fact, one of the backbones of the American economy in the very worst of times--Obama has outed himself as the same-old-same old, a union-buster, yet another President that the shrinking middle class cannot rely on for any progressive labor policy whatsoever.

I can argue all day (or, for like another couple hundred more words) about why I think Obama has chosen this path, why he has, in fact, broken his late campaign promises to the working people who voted for him. But I'd rather alert all of us to something more important, more fundamental to why breaking these contracts, and indeed failing to support above all, the workers who make the cars in this country, is bad for the economy. The classic neo-liberal move, master-minded by Larry Summers under the Clinton administration (now Obama's chief economic adviser), was to feign support of the middle-class while dismantling what little labor law there was left, relying on the economics of "market self-correction," and making free trade agreements absent any real fair standards for labor cost adjustments. This, many economists now say, including Paul Krugman (once a neo-liberal himself and now just a talking head), helped lead to our current recession. In fact, since Regan, we've seen a speedier systematic effort on the part of special interests, lobbyists (the secretive, rich, Republican, and powerful National Right to Work Committee, chief among them), and "foreign trading partners," working hand-in-hand with our elected officials, to dismantle the rights of Americans to form unions in our own workplaces--hence the rights of international workers seeking some kind of precedent contra "trade agreements." During this same time, household median incomes first stagnated (under Regan, Bush One and Clinton), then declined (under Bush Two and now Obama) for the first time in a century. It is a basic law of our bad economics that when people have less and less money, they have less purchasing power, and when they have less purchasing power, they buy fewer things and the heart of the economy--production and export--begins to sag. Major sectors begin to show cracks, then start to crumble, as we are less and less able to buy the very things that others, say, auto workers, would make. You hear this myth, generated as Republican talking points, that the problem with the auto sector is that people are buying foreign cars because they are better and cheaper, and that the reason for this is that the labor costs for foreign cars is lower. And who is to blame? The big bad unions. Everyone has heard this myth, but it is a myth. This global recession within a temporally unrelenting income gap, caused in large part by decades of structural erosion of the middle class, the busting of unions, the dismantling of labor laws, it's not just hurting American autos. It's hurting foreign manufacturers as well. Week after week Honda, Toyota, Nissan, are laying off their "cheaper" employees and shutting down their plants. Truth is, the difference in pay between American and foreign manufacturers is, on average, about $2.00 per hour. And that's causing our recession? Are you kidding? No, we are living at a time when the middle class is now teetering on non-existent, when everyone is taking out loans and leases, not purchasing, major products. It was only a matter of time before this was to occur: and the only structures holding this economy up right now are those of us either in unions or eligible to be in unions, that is, us.

So the way I see it, we have a great responsibility here. We are the protectors of our own livelihoods. Most of us are beginning to realize this. The reason I think I fall into that small category of Americans for who this realization occurred many years ago is simply due to luck, bad luck. I grew up in Detroit. I have been living in a recessionary state for most of my adult life. My family, like most families in Michigan, has direct ties to the auto industry. We've been through bankruptcies and fallen below the poverty line. And we are a hard working bunch. And so I suppose I understand that having the right to form a union is a good thing because for us, being in the UAW was the only way our family could have health care. And my mother and myself have chronic illnesses, which, absent health care, would kill us. It's not that I'm any smarter or wiser than other Americans who are just now realizing the damage breaking union contracts and worker's rights has done to this economy. It's just that I have had years of experience noting just how lucky we were to be able to be part of the UAW, to have real rights on the job in the best and worst of times (and the "best" of times in Detroit were no walk in the park). 

So I'm not trying to sound like some pundit when I say that what we need now is to pressure the you-know-what out of our elected officials, our Congressional leaders, and yes, our President to pass some very important legislation--the Employee Free Choice Act. This legislation would give workers more rights on the job at a time when we really need those rights. The legislation allows us to freely form unions without intimidation, to protect ourselves, and most importantly, the Employee Free Choice Act simply gives us back some of the rights we used to have when the economy was in good shape because of our hard work. I'll do it if you do it: call your Congressional leaders this week and tell them to vote for this very important legislation. Then, if you feel like I do, go and write other elected officials in more conservative states, try scare tactics if need be. These are desperate times. And as Obama showed this week, we as a working class are going to have to act if we are to maintain, let alone improve, our livelihoods. We cannot rely on politicians to get the job done for us.

David Wolach is a former member of the United Auto Workers, Local 2110 and Local 6000. He is now a professor of Creative Writing and Philosophy at The Evergreen State College, a Visiting professor in Bard College's Workshop In Language & Thinking, and editor of Wheelhouse Magazine .

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