[This article is from the web site “Labor Tuesday”
for January 15, 2002. This version has been edited for Labor Standard.]
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.
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.
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realize productivity gains in the plants by any technological means necessary, while plant and line bosses apply never-out-of-date speed-up.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.
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
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.”
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.
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
the Ford job losses raise questions about the production-for-profit
system — capitalism — the job losses also raise questions about today’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.
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
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
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.
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.)
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.
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
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.