More at Stake for Auto Workers Than Wages and Benefits

Do CounterPunch, 29 Setembro 2023

Edvard Munch – Workers on their Way Home

The United Auto Workers have struck now for two weeks. Using a novel strategy to keep management on its toes, namely walking out at various plants at unexpected times, a new, different union leadership hopes to wrest some benefits from the claws of a monstrously greedy industry that has already raked in $21 billion this year. Its CEOs pull down millions of dollars annually, while the average worker’s pay has long stagnated.

American oligarchs, the plutocrats who own the so-called free press, billionaires and other denizens of the ruling class seem genuinely startled at this strike. Why, asked one corporate-bought-and-paid-for congressman, can’t these strikers just be fired? Others in Congress no doubt wonder why can’t Joe “Phony Lunch Pail” Biden do to them what he did to the railroad workers, that is, break their strike. Instead, he walked the picket line. Genuine solidarity or photo op? You pick. Meanwhile, UAW president Shawn Fain tells his members: “We’re going to keep hitting the company where we need to, when we need to, and we’re not going to keep waiting around forever while they drag this out.”

Roughly 13,000 auto workers struck on September 14. Eight days later, over 5000 walked off 38 more sites. Almost one hundred and fifty thousand of them could yet strike if their demands are not met. Indeed, 97 percent of the auto workers authorized this stoppage, insisting on cost-of-living adjustments, the right to strike over plant closures, retiree medical benefits, defined benefit pensions for all UAW members, ditching wage and benefit tiers, big pay increases and, very notably, concerns regarding electric vehicle (EV) production. Striking workers want this critical climate switch to involve good union jobs. Their bosses, the modern-day equivalent of robber barons, have so far evinced little interest in yielding. And these are just the big asks. There are others.

After the initial walkout at three plants on September 14, negotiations continued between the UAW and General Motors, Ford and Stellantis. Management doubtless noted that this strike is already a first: never before has this union struck all of the Big Three employers simultaneously. The UAW does so now because the stakes have skyrocketed, namely, workers being able to live off their jobs in an era of shocking income inequality that surpasses the ghastly Gilded Age. According to CNN on September 17, “The last offers from the three automakers came before the Thursday night deadline. The UAW countered the proposals before the deadline, as well. ‘Comprehensive, full contract offers were given,’ the source said. The union is awaiting new offers from the automakers.” Well, they must not have liked those new offers, or the rank and file wouldn’t have walked off another 38 work sites. They went easier on Ford though, in light of that company’s seriousness about negotiating with evident recognition that its workers are human beings.

Meanwhile, presidential candidate Trump has grabbed the limelight, arguing that workers should vote for him, UAW leadership is foolhardy and all EV jobs will go to China. In fact, Beijing may well claim the lion’s share of EV production, not due to the reasons Trump cites but rather because the real question is who will make an AFFORDABLE EV? Currently, the average EV costs $53,000. That’s too much. It’s confiscatory, and millions of people won’t buy an EV for that money. With their credit cards maxed out, they couldn’t even if they wanted to. They’ll continue driving what they’ve got, or buy cheaper, gasoline-powered cars.

If China designs an EV at half that price, then Beijing wins the “Coping with Climate Change” sweepstakes. Trump, if elected president, would no doubt slap huge tariffs on Chinese EVs to make them non-competitive with American ones, but then, he’s not exactly concerned about the planet withering from heat. Donald “Let the World Burn” Trump has other interests, and climate change has never been one of them. However, he quite dangerously could receive sympathy for his wrong-headed argument that the transition to EVs means those jobs go to China.

Auto workers want good jobs in the green transition to EVs. They also want to be able to buy a car. Currently, most Americans can only afford used, gasoline-powered vehicles. And starting during the pandemic lockdowns, the price of those used cars shot through the roof, for the simple reason that everybody wanted them. Some Americans can still afford a new sedan at an average price of $48,000, but mostly with loans, and with the median car loan interest rate in the stratosphere, at 6.63 percent, many will buy cheaper models. Most Americans, however, object to being fleeced for a new car, with or without astronomical monthly interest. So my bet is that the country that figures out how to make cheap EVs, will end up cornering that market.

In the eyes of Republicans, corporatists, billionaires and other assorted oligarchs and plutocrats like Trump, this means that the country with the lowest labor costs wins the affordable EV beauty contest. They are wrong. Workers’ pay only accounts for six percent of that $48,000 sticker price. Whose benefits do you think make up most of it? Company CEOs, other corporate bigwigs and investors, that’s who. And then of course, these monopolistic behemoths can and do raise prices whenever and however much they like. Corporate logic about affordability and low labor overhead only appears to prevail because those same plutocrats succeeded in deindustrializing the U.S., by shipping most good-paying jobs, and thus the manufacturing base, to Mexico and then China, decades ago. If they had an ounce of honesty or concern for Americans, they’d acknowledge the harm they did and strive to fix it. They don’t.

Well-paid workers in a functioning, industrialized country (like China today or the 1940s to early 1970s U.S.) mean there’s a vast, deep, good domestic market for what those workers produce. To say nothing of being able to export stuff. That’s the world the UAW and other unions want to recreate. They receive, of course, zero, nada, zip, zilch help from corporations – on the contrary, they encounter nothing but hostility, sabotage, resistance and stinginess from management busy with its stock buybacks and CEO bonuses. Even worse, unions receive no help from the government, even when so-called liberal Democrats run the show. There’s one word for those Dems – phonies. Workers are on their own, which is why their unions do things like innovate strike maneuvers.

So now, UAW leaders count “on members to be more prepared to quickly swing into action than management,” according to labornotes September 15. That’s why tactics, like which plants to strike, are being kept under wraps. “The strategy, so far, seems like a success.” Another labornotes article, also that day, reports, “the UAW is calling its strategy the ‘stand-up strike,’ a nod to the Flint sit-down strike of 1936-1937 that helped establish the union.”

This is appropriate because in a very real sense, the UAW is trying to establish the union in a new, green market that will, hopefully, replace the old, carbon-polluting, gasoline-powered one. In so doing, workers start from scratch, just as every generation’s struggle to survive and win for itself the goods and rights its predecessors had, in a very profound way, starts from scratch. (Maybe it didn’t for the boomers, but they are the exception that proves the rule.) A new green market awaits. But frankly, the only people truly moving us toward mass use of it are the striking union rank and file.

Eve Ottenberg is a novelist and journalist. Her latest book is Lizard People. She can be reached at her website.

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