This is a perspective written by Jerry White.
The naked class character of the proposals for a so-called “bailout” of the US auto makers has become increasingly clear. The crisis of the Big Three companies is being seized upon as an opportunity to drive auto workers back to conditions of poverty and exploitation not seen since the Great Depression.
As a condition for federal loans to avert the imminent bankruptcy of GM and Chrysler, politicians of both big business parties—who handed over trillions of dollars, with no strings attached, to Wall Street—are demanding that auto workers accept mass layoffs and a cut in pay that would lower their wages, in real terms, to less than half that earned by their fathers and grandfathers forty years ago. The United Auto Workers union is fully collaborating in this attack on rank-and-file workers.
With anger among auto workers against the politicians, the companies and the UAW leadership growing by the day, both the Democratic Party and the union are attempting to whip up economic nationalism as a reactionary diversion to pit workers at the Big Three plants against their fellow workers at foreign-owned, non-union plants in the US as well as against auto workers in other countries. The aim is to politically disarm the workers, line them up behind their “own” employers and pre-empt any struggle in defense of jobs and living standards.
Auto workers have a long and bitter experience with the snake oil of America-first chauvinism peddled by the UAW bureaucracy and the Democratic Party. It has been nearly 30 years since the UAW, in league with CEO Lee Iacocca, initiated its flag-waving “Buy American” campaign during the 1979-80 Chrysler bailout, which marked the beginning of three decades of wage and benefit concessions.
Economic nationalism went hand-in-hand with corporatism and the claim by the UAW that workers had no independent interests separate and apart from those of the auto bosses. In the name of “labor-management partnership” the union suppressed all resistance to plant closures and demands for lower wages and speed-up. To oppose concessions, the UAW argued, was to undermine the “competitiveness” of the American auto companies and give the advantage to foreign companies.
The economic nationalism of the UAW has produced nothing but a disaster for auto workers, who have seen the destruction of more than 600,000 jobs at General Motors, Ford and Chrysler since 1979 and unending demands for concessions.
For the union bureaucracy, it has been a different story. It has profited from union-management slush funds and joint investment schemes. Although the union has lost two-thirds of its membership, the UAW officialdom has managed to increase its income. Last year it was handed control of a multi-billion-dollar retiree healthcare trust fund and large amounts of company stock in exchange for its agreement to cut new-hires’ wages in half.
It is an historic fact that the last global economic depression led to the outbreak of world war and the deaths of tens of millions of people, as the various imperialist powers fought for control of markets, raw materials and access to cheap labor. Something even more terrible is being prepared today behind the nationalist demagogy of big business politicians and their allies in the union bureaucracy.
As events in the US and all over the world are demonstrating, the fundamental division in society is not nation, race or religion, but class. Auto workers in the US face the same basic conditions and the same attacks as their brothers and sisters all over the world. In every country, the corporate-financial elite is seeking to impose the full burden of the failure of its economic system on the backs of the working class.