Auto Crisis: The Nationalization Demand Is Gaining Ground

[Note: Jerry Tucker is a past International Executive Board member of the United Auto Workers' union (UAW). He is also a co-founder of the Center for Labor Renewal and is actively involved in organizing a national labor campaign for single-payer healthcare. The interview below is reprinted from Unity & Independence No. 13, February 2009.]

Question: What is going on with the auto bailout, and what should labor’s response be?

Jerry Tucker: The Democrats and Republicans in the Congress – the very same folks who placed no conditions on the bailout to the banks, with no accountability whatsoever to boot – pressed for leaner and meaner auto corporations as a condition for releasing up to $34 billion for the auto bailout. They told the automakers that they have to eliminate 40,000 jobs and become “more competitive” if they are to get the money.

The bailout plan will allow them to downsize in this country and export more jobs and ultimately import the vehicles we have built for years from their plants in other, even lower wage, countries. And they can, under that agenda, do all this short of declaring bankruptcy. This is union-busting, pure and simple.

They are not just threatening jobs; they are threatening the jobs bank, pensions and the union’s healthcare plan, all of the gains we’ve made over the years. And not only just for autoworkers. Those gains set wage and benefit precedents for millions of additional U.S. workers and raised the standard of living for the entire working class.

Healthcare and pensions are deferred wages, legacy costs. The workers’ paid into these funds over decades of hard work. Since 1972 they have paid into the various funds. To take those funds away, as is now being proposed, would be a crime.

What has the leadership of the UAW done about this?

Tucker: What was so dramatic about those hearings in Washington is that Ron Get-tlefinger and his cohorts in the UAW leadership have agreed to all the concessions demanded of them. The labor movement must not go along with this concessionary pact. Long ago, the union gave up on “adversarialism” with the company. They were among the first to buy into the “labor-management” cooperation schemes. But now many of us are questioning whether the UAW remains an independent union. To more and more of us, the union has become the handmaiden of the corporations.

A few decades ago there were 1.5 million autoworkers in this country. Today there are fewer than 400,000. Most of the jobs have been outsourced. In the name of keeping these jobs in this country – which never happened – auto workers were told they had to make concessions in terms of wages and conditions. Time after time, workers, spurred on by the UAW leadership, made these concessions – and still the bosses took their jobs to Mexico or Southeast Asia. Now they are moving our jobs to Russia.

Question: Tell us about the resistance to this buyout plan among the rank-and-file of the union. And also tell us about the Labor Single-Payer Conference in St. Louis in mid-January.

Jerry Tucker: There has been a lot of opposition among the ranks of the union. Car caravans of auto workers traveled from many cities in the Midwest to Washington to send one message to the Congress: “Don’t Cut Any of Our Jobs or Benefits!” But these workers were not allowed in the Senate hearings, and nor was their real message carried by the corporate media.

Another important development is the growing discussion about the need for Congress to nationalize the Big 3 – that is, bring them under public ownership.

Under such a measure, the industry could be re-tooled to produce more efficient cars and electric cars. Detroit could begin producing high-speed rail. We could revitalize a mass transportation system and introduce a truly Green transportation policy. We not only could save every job, we could create hundreds of thousands of new jobs.

We need a publicly owned restructured system of auto / vehicle production and transportation. This would be the ideal time to take the step toward creating this system. Congress could do this.

As to the conference in St. Louis, many of us in labor are convinced that we need a socially responsible solution to the healthcare crisis. And we are convinced that any plan – such as the one pushed by the folks around Obama – that includes a mix of public and private sectors is a toxic combination that would be destructive to people in need of healthcare.

We are aiming to build a labor grassroots movement in the new situation created by the Obama victory on November 4. Obama said healthcare is a priority, so we intend to tell him what kind of healthcare is expected from the labor movement, from the people who made his election possible.

For this, we need labor at all levels to get involved in this drive for Medicare For All, which is another term we intend to use to promote our single-payer plan. Labor needs to tell Obama with one voice that the best economic stimulus program would be to enact single-payer healthcare.

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