In Defense of . . . the United Auto Workers (UAW)

 

In Defense of . . . the United Auto Workers (UAW)

By Tony Sterbenc

July 28, 2009

 

 

This website has stood out front in condemning the pro-corporate cowardice of the paper car mags, and rightly so. But when they show some courage and get it right, they deserve a shout-out. In the proud TTAC tradition of recognizing all viewpoints, I salute Jamie Kitman’s latest column in Automobile. Kitman’s point: the United Auto Workers (UAW) make a handy whipping boy, but contrary to the new conventional wisdom, they are not the Great Satan that sank our auto industry. In fact, the money the UAW made for decades was a good thing. “Courage,” you say? If you’re like many here, that’s not the adjective you’d use . . .

You probably think about the auto workers union something more along the lines of “pinko Keynesian socialism.” We’re talking world-class wages for the lazy, shiftless louts who famously tied beer cans inside the fender as a practical joke on the buyer? The same bums whose panel gaps were so sloppy, it’s a wonder said can didn’t simply fall out in the second month of ownership?

Not so fast. Consider this: the heyday of the UAW just happened to be the heyday of the American auto industry, whose vitality we now mourn. It was Henry Ford himself who actively overpaid his workers by his era’s standards, so they could afford his company’s products. (Compare that to today, when Wall Street punishes Costco for doing the same.) For decades, the UAW was the mechanism by which America’s working class continued to share in the auto titans’ prosperity.

And what did those bums do with their ill-gotten gains? They became what those same corporate media organs (I’m looking at you, military-contractor GE employee Tom Brokaw) lionize today as The Greatest Generation. The generation that broke Nazism, built Levittown, beat polio, and put more of their kids through college than any generation before.

What made this generation of Americans so Great when they banded together to give up their bodies to the corporate war machine, yet such unpatriotic slobs when they banded together to resist the economic might of the corporate industrial machine? Perhaps the answer we’ve all accepted as gospel has something to do with the seven corporations who now own virtually every medium where you’ll hear the story.

But crack open a few dusty, pre-media-oligopoly history books. You’ll get a quick reminder that there was nothing casual—and a whole lot that was courageous—about the drive to unionize American factories. Workers in places like Haymarket literally gave their lives to get out from under rich industrialists’ thumbs. That isn’t the kind of passion that’s prompted by compulsive laziness.

So why did they do it? If you think this is a shopworn parable about an obsolete problem, consider how our largest retail corporation has made billionaires of its owners by selling us merchandise made by Chinese sweatshop laborers whose average—average—wage is 13 cents an hour.

Those owners have a choice, you know. They could make the choice Henry Ford made. The same choice Detroit’s workers enforced on their employers for decades, to the enduring benefit of the nation. The same choice Costco makes today. They just don’t want to.

Our economy is sinking in a deflationary spiral, precisely because the loss of jobs has sapped consumers’ buying power. Yet, as we slowly feel the quicksand rise past our chins, our last gurgled oaths are damnations cast on ourselves and each other for having ever greedily wanted to keep our jobs.

IM(not especially)HO, you can’t discuss The Truth About Cars without confronting The Truth About Car Workers. And like it or not, that truth leads you straight into the economics of class warfare.

The people who crucify this President for trying to keep America’s #1 middle-class job source alive are the same ones whose pet publications think nothing of trillion-dollar handouts to Wall Street. On the altar of this cold-blooded religion, they’re eager to sacrifice the easy target of a clumsy, mismanaged, uncompetitive Big 2-1/2. As for the millions whose lives dissolve into poverty, alcoholism and suicide when their sustenance is stripped away? Merely the collateral damage of some healthy “creative destruction.”

Ultimately, that’s where I can’t get on board with the gleeful UAW-basher crowd. All we hear today is that American citizens by the tens of millions can be fecklessly reduced to the gutter, but the artificial corporate entities we created to enhance the general welfare are somehow “too big to fail.” Pity is, the people pushing this pro-corporate groupspeak don’t realize their god is as uninterested in their faith—or their fate—as that funky bird-beaked statue Yul Brynner beseeches for plague relief in The Ten Commandments.

You know how that story ended, right? His son died anyway, and nobody cared.

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