GM strike

Dennis R Redmond dredmond at OREGON.UOREGON.EDU
Wed Jul 1 03:01:58 PDT 1998

On Wed, 1 Jul 1998, Justin Schwartz wrote:

> The unions need democratization, rank and file militancy, and a less cozy
> relationship with the bosses. But there's no point in condemning them for
> not being the unions socialists would like. The IWW, which has all the
> right perspectives, is largely a nostalgic gesture, of no social weight.
> We have to start where we are, and global condemnations don't help. Nor
> will they appeal to militant workers, like those in New Directions and the
> TDU. Those workers know more about featherbedding and bureaucracy than any
> of us, but they want to save and not damn their unions.

The model for auto unions isn't the IWW, it's IG Metall. The German unionists, incidentally, would laugh at the notion that criticizing the UAW is somehow bad for union biz; they criticize their unions (and institutions) all the time, which is a good thing. Schremp, the head honcho at Daimler, was interviewed in Der Spiegel awhile back, and the editors just climbed all over his shit -- were persistently critical. He responded with vigor, of course, but when's the last time you've ever seen an interview with a senior US auto exec which wasn't a pro-industry love-in? The measure of a democracy is the extent to which it allows its citizens to be genuinely critical of things, not the slickness of its marketing campaigns.

And intellectuals have a *key* part to play here. GM wants to shut its North American plants down completely; but if wages are so darn high here, why are Honda, Mitsubishi, Toyota, Daimler etc. setting up plants here? Stupidity? That fabled Japanese/German quest for world hegemony? Hardly. They're here because GM produces crap and expects consumers to buy it, which they don't; so other, more efficient and better-organized competitors have moved in. Typically these transplants don't just use kaizen and just-in-time techniques in production, they also invest a lot in their suppliers; Honda in particular started out by importing lots of parts, and gradually built up their American supplier networks, working with local management and instituting total quality systems, etc. Most of all, the transplants emphasize the human element -- their workers -- and think long-term about their investment strategy, the exact opposite of GM's imperious, let-the-suppliers-eat-margin-death, layoff-oriented attitude. Interestingly, the latest evidence shows that much of the superiority of the transplants comes not from the assembly plant itself, but from the care and feeding of supplier networks; Honda, for one, has a policy of 50-50 sharing when it comes to process innovations from suppliers. The quality of the Honda Accord is beyond question, proving that even limited forms of cooperation and workplace democratization (Honda's system is much more decentralized and information-friendly than most GM plants) are vastly superior to neoliberal competition, even in that arch-capitalist enterprise, the auto industry.

Why is this important to the UAW? Because if the UAW knew this, they'd figure out that GM's strategy of outsourcing their supplier lines is not simply sleazy, it's also self-destructive. Quality will go to hell, because suppliers figure, what the heck, they don't give a damn about me, so why bother with quality. The next step would be to look carefully at how IG Metall quashed Volkswagen's attempt to GM-ize its inhouse suppliers in the early Nineties -- VW imported Lopez from GM, who slashed and burned numerous accounts before being himself terminated, and also tried to shift production to cheap Polish and Czech factories (which would've also been the death-knell for Eastern European industry). IG Metall saved Eastern Europe's ass, by blocking this, and insisting that VW follow a high-quality, long-term investment strategy in Prague and elsewere. Result: Skoda is beginning to move up the value ladder and is powering the Czech economy in a positive way.

IG Metall has also scoured the map in Eastern Europe, linking up with trade unions, espousing industrial policies, and working towards coordinated actions with their non-German comrades. But what is the UAW's Mexican strategy? To complain about free trade while subsidizing Dem reelection campaigns?

-- Dennis

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