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Keep auto plants open!

Use bailout funds to save workers’ jobs

Published Jun 10, 2009 3:24 PM

More than a million and a half workers in the United States have lost their jobs since last December. Some 345,000 lost their jobs in May. Unemployment is at 9.4 percent and headed up to more than 10 percent.

Well over 25 million workers are out of work or underemployed. Long-term unemployment is at a record.

Nevertheless, Washington has given General Motors and Chrysler $17 billion as a reward for shutting down 22 plants, tearing up union contracts and closing 3,000 dealerships. And the government has promised billions more to the auto barons.

These cruel measures will sharply aggravate the unemployment crisis across the country and bring further hardship to those still working.

They must be stopped.

Companies must not be paid by the government to shut down factories or impose no-strike pledges, wage freezes, compulsory arbitration, loss of break time, reduced overtime and supplementary unemployment benefits pay, two-tier systems that lower wages, reduced retiree benefits, and so on.

These billions in government money should be used instead to keep workers on the job and provide them a decent living.

Well over 100,000 autoworkers, mechanics, salespeople and office personnel who work directly for GM, Chrysler and the auto dealers will lose their jobs.

The ripple effect will cost 10 times that many jobs outside the auto industry. Workers who produce auto parts, steel and other metals, rubber, glass, paint, microchips and computers, machine tools and robots will lose their jobs, along with drivers who haul the cars and service workers in the communities that surround the plants and dealerships.

Communities that have given the auto companies tax breaks and built infrastructure for them will lose important tax revenue. They will be forced to cut their budgets, make further layoffs and reduce services.

The auto bosses are aiming a hammer blow at workers and communities all across the country. And Washington is paying them to do it!

Instead of allowing the government to hand $175 billion to insurance giant AIG to pay off its gambling debts and trillions to the banks to clean up their balance sheets, unions and communities should demand that this money be used to keep the plants open, reopen those already closed down, and hire back those laid off.

Instead of a government TARP fund for bankers, we need a JOBS fund for workers.

It’s done in Europe

This is not an outrageous idea. In Europe, where the unions have been stronger and the bosses weaker than in the United States, the labor movement has been able to push governments to slow down layoffs and plant closings and subsidize workers.

In Germany, France, Italy, Belgium and other countries, the governments have been forced to lend companies money for the specific purpose of keeping plants open and saving jobs, not shutting them down. In the last five years, despite declines in auto sales worldwide, European auto workers have been able to maintain their job level at about 2.3 million. Over the same period in the U.S., auto jobs have declined from 1.1 million to 780,000. (New York Times, May 25)

U.S. autoworkers and all the unions and communities affected by this latest round of attacks should demand that a good piece of the trillion dollars going to the auto companies and the banks be turned over to the unions, in alliance with the communities, so that the workers can keep the operation going.

This money should not go to the present owners but to the rightful owners, the workers, who created all the wealth of the companies. Owners and high-paid officials are not needed to run the companies. That is a complete myth. Their specialty is making a profit off the backs of the workers. The present economic crisis dictates that profits must be subordinated to the workers’ interests.

The unions can put together their own management teams. They can come from the ranks of the workers and from the thousands of managers, accountants and other white-collar workers thrown out of their jobs. They can be rehired by the unions with government money and given the task of management under the control of the workers and in collaboration with representative bodies from the communities.

There is much talk about creating a green economy and improving mass transportation. The country desperately needs mass transportation and environmentally friendly technology. The auto bosses, the oil companies and the industrialists have been fighting against it for years.

The workers can stop the Big Three from destroying perfectly good factories that could be used to create high-speed and other railroad cars, buses and subways. Under workers’ control a vast changeover of the industry could take place. Engineers, designers and planners familiar with the transportation and auto industry could be hired by the unions. Reconstruction plans could be forged in collaboration with state and local governments throughout the country.

Such an arrangement would also put an end to the scapegoating of Mexican, Chinese and other workers outside the U.S. who need jobs just as much as U.S. workers do. After all, it is GM, Chrysler and Ford that are squeezing workers and laying them off, not workers abroad. With government funding, no jobs would have to be sacrificed.

Organize from below

The question is how to get there. A first step is for the rank-and-file to get organized from down below to overturn these latest contracts. Even though workers voted to approve them, they are not legally binding because they were signed under duress.

No court of law is obliged to recognize any agreement, written or verbal, made under duress. What else can it be called when unions and workers are put under pressure by the companies, the Treasury Department, the White House and the banks to sign their futures away or face liquidation of the company, with the loss of all their jobs? When unemployment is going through the roof, it is a choice between slow death or sudden death.

The whole process turns collective bargaining into a farce. It is a violation of the National Labor Relations Act to force workers to bargain with a gun to their head. The only “bargaining” was over how much blood the companies were going to take. The companies have no right to make such extortionate demands and the union leaders had no right to participate in this farce and give legal cover for a corporate attack on the very union and workers they are supposed to represent.

This latest surrender has been sold on the basis that profit is inviolable and workers’ rights can be chucked out the window; that the workers’ fate has to be tied to “market conditions”; that the right to shut down and lay off workers comes before the right of workers to a job.

The argument goes that GM and Chrysler must be “lean” in order to be “competitive” enough to make profits. And being “lean” means plant shutdowns, layoffs and concessions. The workers are made responsible and must sacrifice everything for the profitability of the companies that are exploiting them.

This is the traditional scheme that subordinates labor to capital. It must be turned on its head. The rights of workers must come before the rights of capital.

Staying within the narrow framework of the traditional capital-labor relationship has led down the path of disaster for the workers and the unions. The stated aim of GM, Ford and Chrysler is to reduce the condition of unionized auto workers to that of non-union auto workers. The competitiveness argument leads to nothing less than the ultimate liquidation of the unions as an effective representative of the workers.

The task is to take back the unions for the rank-and-file and turn them into fighting organizations that truly represents the interests of the workers. Although it is a mighty task, it can and must be done. Workers’ futures and the futures of their children depend upon it.

The unions have thousands of potential leaders. There are union reps at the shop-floor level who have fought the companies on a daily basis and do not want to see the union go down. There are local officials who have wanted to fight back but have been restrained and handcuffed by the higher-ups. They should not be made to sit idly by and see their locals destroyed. There are rank-and-file workers and officials with experience in the class struggle who have fought bitter strikes and can be called upon.

UAW workers have shown their initiative over history. Time and again they have gone into battle, even before the great Flint sit-down strike of 1937 that won the battle for industrial unionism.

The time has come to demand that the government turn over the money it has been giving the companies to shut down plants and instead give it to the workers, in alliance with the communities, to keep plants open. The time has come to put workers’ rights, community rights and the right to a job above the rights of capital. The Republic Windows and Doors workers of UE Local 1110 in Chicago set a heroic example of putting workers’ rights before the bosses’ rights when they occupied the plant to get benefits owed them.

Autoworkers are in a unique position to start the fightback against the crisis. Auto and its support industries are central to the economy and are located across the country.

This may seem utopian. But at one time it was illegal just to organize a union. It was illegal for African-Americans in the South to enter a “white-only” facility. These barriers were burst by organized struggle from down below.

Now is the time to reach out to all the unions and communities affected by this attack and build a class-wide, anti-racist, counter-offensive against the economic crisis.