Wednesday, June 24, 2009

We’re Finding Our Way

There are encouraging signs that the American working class is finding its way toward a strategy of unity and solidarity that can lead to successes. Here in Texas, the labor movement has unified brilliantly against the right-wingers controlling state offices. Our unity in political fights, including unity between the AFL-CIO and the dissident federation, Change to Win, has been admirable.

At the same time, there are vestiges of older “go it alone” separatism still holding us back. The green alliance between unionists and environmentalists is wonderful, but many of the participants will remember that the Autoworkers backed the former “Big 3” auto companies in opposing fuel economy regulations, and they continue clutching at “buy my product” strategies even though it separates them from others. It gets ridiculous when unionized autoworkers from different manufacturers argue in public over which cars to recommend to other unionists, but it happens.

Jingoism, especially in its China-bashing form, is growing dangerously in union speeches and conversations. The “buy American” tactic of old did not work in the textile industry, which has been almost totally outsourced, and it never worked for big-ticket items like automobiles either. The Economic Policy Institute recently published a short piece by Tony Avirgan and Anna Turner revealing that, “Big Three U.S. automakers have outsourced much of the production of auto parts, resulting in a loss of 354,000 jobs in U.S. auto and auto parts manufacturing over the past two years alone.”

A smaller, but relevant, example came from the Dallas paper on June 24. “GAO Auditors: Tilt-rotor falls short,” was the headline. The article says that the military’s V-22 Osprey flying device isn’t living up to its promise after costing “$27 billion in taxpayer money.” Twenty years ago, unionized workers at Bell Helicopter made it their top priority to lobby for government acceptance of the plane. Bell management rewarded them by moving nearly all the work to a new plant in Amarillo and resisting all efforts to organize it. The union is currently on strike over health care issues.

As American workers unite to demand that their government solve the health care crisis, some workers still cling to the idea that their employer will go back to the 1950s and provide full cradle-to-grave insurance. Employer-provided health care was the American “solution” to health care back when the other industrialized nations developed their national plans, and many of our most revered union leaders from the 1950s led the way into the trap.

The Economic Policy Institute article gives American workers a good tip from Germany. It says that German unemployment, long higher than ours, is now lower. German unionists never gave up the demand for shorter hours, as Americans did in the 1950s, and their government is currently subsidizing employers who keep workers on payrolls. They add, “This policy, along with a “cash-for-clunkers” program, has meant that, as of June 1, Germany had not lost a single full-time job in auto manufacturing. By comparison, 92,500 American auto manufacturing workers have lost jobs in the last 24 months.”

Necessity is a great teacher. American workers are learning fast.

--Jim Lane

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