Whats Good for Ford
By Charles Walker
When William Clay Ford announced Friday, Jan. 11 that he was closing down four U.S. Ford auto industry plants and a plant in Canada during the next 48 months, he blamed an overly ambitious business plan, competition, and the recession that officially dates from last March. Ford said that the corporation would cut its capacity by one million vehicles. Reportedly, Ford apologized to the 35,000 workers (21,500 in North America) who will lose their jobs, including those whose peace of mind and hopes for employment with relatively good incomes are likely to be history. What Ford didnt apologize for was the production-for-profit system that makes dashed dreams and hardships inevitable for workers if not this layoff or this recession, then perhaps the next.
Ford said that he hopes that the firm will improve to a $9 billion profit level in four years, up from $6.67 billion in 2000. In other words, Ford hopes to do to his competitors what theyre doing to him. If Fords hopes are realized, and no doubt many Ford workers and union officials are banking on it, other auto workers are sure to hear some bad news about their jobs.
Actually, the number of auto jobs Ford is eliminating is a very small percentage of the total number of union auto jobs lost in the past 20 years. The United Auto Workers ranks fell from 1.5 million two decades ago to 728,000 in 2000, reported the Detroit Free Press (May 19, 2001). While the papers figures may include the Canadian auto workers union (CAW) which bolted from the UAW in 1985, it no doubt now includes hospital workers, writers, teaching assistants and the like who have joined the UAW over the same time span.
All those lost jobs just didnt fall off a cliff. In their own way, company directors and senior managers have worked hard to realize productivity gains in the plants by any technological means necessary, while plant and line bosses apply never-out-of-date speed-up. Working robots and robotized workers are a fact of daily life in auto plants in the U.S. and around the world.
If production-for-profit is not questioned by the bosses, neither is it questioned by the auto workers leaderships who work hard at keeping their union posts in good times and bad. Truth to tell, not many workers question the profit system that channels their lives. Its very much like the stockyard chutes that channel dumb beasts to their inescapable destiny. But many workers now and again do question the close relationships between the auto company bosses and the UAW. At those times they may not be sure how to fix their problems, but they instinctively think that theres a connection between their problems and the close relationships the union tops cultivate with the corporate tops.
Of course, the workers instincts are right on target. In the present case, the UAW officialdom has no intention of fighting Ford over his decision to unload the corporations pain onto the workforce. During the entire time the present UAW leadership has been in office it has never seriously fought against the automakers constant downsizing of the workforce. As a sign of their closeness to the corporate bosses, the union officials are ready to help Ford carry out his scheme to realize a $9 billion profit level.
Commenting on the job losses, UAW president Steven Yokich says, The UAWs history of using constructive relationships with employers to get through tough times has been proven many times over. Of course, Yokichs statement doesnt include the many tough battles the UAW fought with the auto barons during really bad timesthe Great Depression of 1929-39, for examplejust to get recognized (especially, the powerful Flint sit-down strike of 1936). Nor does he have in mind the sharp fights after the close of World War IIincluding 118 days on picket lines by workers at General Motorsthat forced the auto bosses to realize that the auto workers in 1946 were no less determined and battle-ready than the auto workers of 1936.
As a matter of fact, the unions contracts with Ford, Chrysler, and General Motors anticipate the continuous loss of good-paying union jobs. Its estimated that General Motors current contract will result in the loss of 13,000 UAW jobs. The union now says, UAW agreements with the Big Three [Ford, GM, & Chrysler] automakers have long included extensive job and income security provisions that protect the pay, health care, and other benefits of laid-off workers.
Thats true, but as a matter of fact the workers themselves are paying for those provisions that protect the pay, health care, and other benefits of laid-off workers. Those future labor costs were anticipated during negotiations and deducted from the pay scales and benefits the companies would have paid all along. But while auto workers receive smaller paychecks in order to provide some help to fired workers, they are absorbing the full coststhe permanent job losses demanded by the corporations as they seek to attain their targeted profit levels.
While the UAW leaders base their strategy on their constructive relationships with employers to get through tough times, the Canadian Auto Workers union is pressing the government in Ottawa to keep some imported cars out of Canada. The Ford Motor Company is an American company. The U.S. company made a decision in the interest of its workers. In Canada, no business or government leadership is working in the interest of Canadian workers, said Canadian Auto Workers union president Buzz Hargrove. While blocking vehicle imports is likely to appeal to threatened Canadian autoworkers, one wonders how the Canadian unionists can justify it to auto unionists in other countries. Surely, shifting the auto bosses problems onto the backs of other autoworkers must invite likeminded one-sided actions. The Canadian unionists may call it what they will, but they cant call it solidarity.
If Ford job losses raise questions about the production-for-profit systemcapitalismthe job losses also raise questions about todays unions. Its not uncommon for union tops to caution workers at contract time not to price themselves out of their jobs. Take care not to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs, workers are warned. While the officers are advising workers to lower their expectations, at the same time they are suggesting that their members blame themselves, the victims, for the hazards of the bosses system The union chiefs have found a way to live well within the system, but their good life is gained at the expense of their dues-paying members. If its the unions job to make sure the goose doesnt go under by keeping its members demands reasonable, then, as the Ford story shows, concessions and job losses are inevitable. But if workers think that unions should use their members organized might to defend their right to a modern standard of living during bad times as well as good times, obviously somethings got to change.
One change that could help all jobless workers and all victims of the system that allocates the products of workers labor in an uneven, top-heavy fashion is for unionized workers to use their potentially tremendous organized forces to secure real social security for all. Real social security would provide union wages for all workers, including the jobless. It would provide health care for all, young and old alike as a matter of civilized right, along with universal access to housing, clothing and transportation. It would provide education opportunities from nurseries to universities.
Of course such a modest program that merely guarantees every human being the right to a job and the basic requirements of life will be denounced by the ruling class as revolutionary; and correctly so! It would be a giant step toward the reversal of the current relationship between the two main social classes in modern society; one in which the many that produce all of societys wealthincluding all the means of production, transportation and distributionhave little or nothing, while the few who expropriate all of societys wealth have everything.
One thing, however, is certain. Such a modest change as the right to a job and a living wage can only be won in the course of a struggle that is, indeed, revolutionary.
The industrious lives of workers are ample proof that we would welcome a higher standard of living from our labor. But isnt our present share of the $10 trillion bounty of products and services we annually produce the most that we have any right to expect? Actually, if we received no more than the same share of the wealth that went to our parents and us just a few decades ago, our wages and salaries would total hundreds of billions of dollars more each year. Truth to tell, the wealthy few, a super rich minoritywho control the economys purse stringshas swindled us while we were busy working. If we think about it, we must conclude that the entire economic system that is called capitalism is based on a swindle, on the robbing of the majority of much of what we labor to produce by a minority that is blind, if not coldly indifferent, to the enormity of their crime.
If the unconscionable swindle is to be brought to an end, we must exercise our natural democratic right to replace the bountiful but plutocratic economy. And replace it with a no less plentiful, but democratic economy that makes our interests, the interests and welfare of the real wealth-makers, the interests of the wage and salary earners, the interests of the overwhelming majority the only basis for deciding our future.