What’s Good for Ford Is Good for Workers—Not!

[This article is from the web site “Labor Tuesday” for January 15, 2002. This version has been edited for Labor Standard.]

When William Clay Ford announced last 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 didn’t 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 he hopes 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 they’re doing to him. If Ford’s 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 paper’s figures may include the Canadian Auto Workers union (CAW), which bolted from the UAW in 1985, it no doubt also includes hospital workers, writers, teaching assistants, and the like, who have joined the UAW over the same time span.

All those lost jobs just didn’t 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realize productivity gains in the plants by any technological means necessary, while plant and line bosses apply never-out-of-date speed-up.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 around the world.

If the production-for-profit system 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 very much like stockyard chutes 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 officials. At those times they may not be sure how to fix their problems, but they instinctively think that there’s 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 share the corporation’s pain with the workforce. During the entire time that the present union leadership has been in office it has never fought against the automakers’ constant downsizing of the workforce. Rather, 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 UAW’s history of using constructive relationships with employers to get through tough times has been proven many times over.”

Of course, Yokich’s statement doesn’t include the many tough battles the UAW fought with the auto barons during really bad times—the Great Depression of 1929–39 — just to get recognized (especially the powrful Flint sit-down strike of 1936–37). Nor does he have in mind the sharp fights after the close of World War II — including 118 days on strike lines by workers at General Motors — that 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 union’s contracts with Ford, Chrysler, and General Motors anticipate the continuous loss of good paying union jobs. It’s estimated that General Motor’s current contract will result in the loss of 13,000 UAW jobs. The union now says, “UAW agreements with the Big Three automakers [Ford, Chrysler, and GM] have long included extensive job and income security provisions that protect the pay, health care, and other benefits of laid-off workers.”

That’s 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 could 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 costs — the 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 President Buzz Hargrove.

While Hargrove’s policy line of blocking vehicle imporsts is likely to appeal to threatened Canadian auto workers, one wonders how the Canadian unionists can justify it to auto unionists in other countries.  Surely, shifting the auto bosses’ problems onto the back of other auto workers must invite similar one-sided actions as retaliation. The Canadian unionists may call it what they will, but they can’t call it solidarity.

Questions About Unions Today

If the Ford job losses raise questions about the production-for-profit system — capitalism — the job losses also raise questions about today’s unions.

 It’s 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 the workers 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 way obviously can’t work for everybody else. If it’s the unions’ job to make sure the goose doesn’t 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 something’s got to change.

Use Labor’s Organized Power to Win Full Social Security

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.

(Certainly the bosses would object to such changes, saying they smack of socialism. But there would be no reason to force the bosses to participate in receiving such social benefits. They could always look elsewhere to satisfy their needs. Pensioners seeking lower prescription medicine prices they can live with do it all the time.)

Of course, there’s no free lunch. So how would real social security be financed?

Workers Could Find the Way

For starters, workers might take back the hundreds of billions of dollars that would be theirs if their share of the gross domestic product (that is the wealth their labor creates) were raised back to where it once was. Despite union wages for some, and minimum wages and so-called living wages for others, the bosses have increased their share of the nation’s yearly production of goods and services, behind the backs of most workers.

If still more money would be needed to provide for the common welfare, we may be sure that workers once accustomed to thinking outside the box and acting in their own best interests would find the social capital to make up the difference.

To us this possible development of workers’ action may sound visionary, but it is necessary. If it sounds unrealistic, consider how real the loss of jobs is for the Ford workers and their dependents.