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Behind Chrysler’s Super Bowl hype, it’s half-pay time

Published Feb 16, 2012 8:40 PM

A 30-second Super Bowl commercial, reaching more than 110 million viewers, costs about $3.5 million. The next day commentators named the best and the worst ads. Chrysler’s “Halftime in America” ad, featuring Clint Eastwood, drew rave reviews.

The message was that “America” — meaning the United States — has been “sucker-punched,” but “we” are on a comeback. Detroit, and implicitly Chrysler, is living proof.

Facts paint a different picture.

In 2000 Detroit’s poverty rate was 26 percent; eight years later it had risen to 44 percent. From the 2000 census to the 2010 census, the population fell from 951,270 to 713,777. Schools are closing or operating with some 60 pupils in a classroom. The foreclosure rate in Detroit remains one of the highest in the country.

Governor Rick Snyder is threatening to impose an “emergency manager” — as he has in other Michigan towns with a Black majority — who has the power to void union contracts, sell public assets and essentially assume dictatorial control over the city’s operations. Mayor Dave Bing even suggested some blighted neighborhoods be “mothballed.”

Chrysler’s turnaround:
on the backs of the workers

Chrysler’s turnaround has been achieved on the backs of the people who build its vehicles. Six plants have closed since 2007. The company’s entire U.S. workforce is at an all-time low of 23,000 hourly workers.

At one time the Dodge Main complex in Detroit employed tens of thousands of workers, the majority of them African American. Chrysler was once the largest private employer in the city of Detroit. Now only one of its assembly plants is located inside city limits; most plants are in the outlying suburbs, with a few in other states. The percentage of African-American workers has fallen from 70 to 30 percent.

The company plans to hire a few thousand in Detroit; Toledo, Ohio; and Belvidere, Ill. That’s a drop in the bucket. When I was hired at Chrysler in 1987, my plant alone employed 3,300 workers. As people were replaced by robots, the workforce was cut by two-thirds. In 2010 that plant was closed in Twinsburg, Ohio. The demolition is going on as I write these lines.

Every one of Chrysler’s new “entry-level” workers will start at a pay rate roughly half that of “traditional” workers. By the end of the four-year contract with the United Auto Workers they will still make about $10 an hour less. Eastwood should have said, “It’s half-pay time — in the United States.” Elsewhere in the Americas — in Mexico — Chrysler pays workers a fraction of what their U.S. counterparts make.

While Chrysler and Eastwood, a Republican, are saying the message was apolitical, many Republicans are complaining that the ad sent a partisan message. Their reasoning is that by echoing the same theme as President Barack Obama’s most recent State of the Union address — that the U.S. is on the road to recovery — the Chrysler ad is a veiled political endorsement. “I was, frankly, offended by it,” said Karl Rove, a Republican political strategist and the senior advisor to President George W. Bush.

Rove took no offense at a blatantly racist Super Bowl ad by former Michigan Rep. Pete Hoekstra, who is challenging Sen. Debbie Stabenow in this year’s election. The ad shows an Asian woman speaking broken English, saying that Debbie “Spenditnow” is helping China by increasing the amount the U.S. borrows from Chinese lenders. “We take your jobs,” the ad concludes. Hoekstra reluctantly pulled the ad but is adamant that he has nothing to apologize for.

In fact it is the capitalist drive for profit, not China, that has created the crisis of unemployment in Michigan.

The two capitalist parties may be quarreling over whether Chrysler was trying to sell cars or trying to reelect the president who bailed them out — and forced UAW members to give up billions of dollars worth of wages and benefits in the process.

The people of Detroit, like the rest of the country, are realizing that it’s not Democrats versus Republicans — it’s us versus the 1%. n

Grevatt has been a Chrysler worker for 24 years.