happy autoworkers

Michael Eisenscher meisenscher at igc.apc.org
Thu Jul 9 21:36:51 PDT 1998

At 11:11 AM 7/9/98 -0400, Doug Henwood wrote:
>I had a long chat with a guy who does union education, mainly for auto and
>steel, last night. He painted a picture of a very happy workforce, with
>25-year-olds pulling down $75k and senior skilled crafts guys (they are
>almost all guys, aren't they?) making over $100k. This would make the Flint
>strikers look pretty anomalous. But he argued that GM's failure to downsize
>aggressively in the early 1980s was a missed opportunity - had they done
>something like Ford, which cut its workforce nearly in half in 18 months,
>and then cut in the UAW as a junior partner in jointness - they'd be in
>much better shape today.
>Any thoughts on this?

There are more than a few core industrial workers, who, like autoworkers, earn what would be classified by most as a thoroughly "middle class" or even "upper middle class" income. Here on the West Coast, members of the ILWU who operate the cranes that unload containers earn well over $100K, while their less skilled coworkers may earn from $50-80K or better. These are the same workers who refused to unload South African Apartheid cargo, who refused to cross picketlines organized in solidarity with liberation fighters in El Salvador and dockers in Liverpool. They are white but they are also Black, Latino and Asian. Along with their skilled craft brethren (and too few sisters), they compose the most privileged of labor's organized sectors. While the impetus and much of the momentum for the NY building trades recent march of 40K construction workers came from the Laborers and others among the least well paid end of the trades, more than a few of those hard hats who tangled with the cops in NY were from the more highly privileged well-paid crafts. Some of an earlier generation of these same workers had thrown bricks at anti-war demonstrators in the streets of Manhattan in the Sixties.

It should also be noted, however, that not all autoworkers, steel workers, rubber workers, dockers, and crafts workers are living fat off the hog, or, as is described above, are members of "a very happy workforce." Some of those same autoworkers have been bounced around the country as they sought to hold onto their union jobs by taking forced relocations when their own jobs were eliminated or plants closed. Many scrape by on $12-18 per hour, and pay off their substantial credit card debt by working second jobs or grabbing all the overtime they can find. The median 1997 weeky full time earnings of union members in durable goods manufacturing was just $616 (compared to $523 for their non-union counterparts). In construction, it was $771 (compared to $484 for non-union). As for the 25-year olds: in 1997, those 25-34 who were union members comprised 11.7% of that age group and about 21% of all union members age 16 and over. In 1995 (the most recent data I have at hand), 535,100 union members (all unions) in the Motor Veh. & Eqpt. sector workers were 43% organized, had mean weekly earnings of $694 and mean hourly earnings of $15.64. 23% were women; 13% were Black; 3% were "other" (mostly Asian). Their mean age was 40; 15% had a college degree or higher.

It has been the members of the better paid, more highly organized unions in the core industrial sectors organized by the CIO that took the greatest hits in the restructuring of the 1970-80s. This produced both militancy (not necessarily radicalism) and conservatism in the ranks of those unions. Those who were threatened by or actually were down-sized out of their relatively comfortable middle class lives were willing to engage in militant struggles ala Pittston, Greyhound, Eastern, Staley, Caterpillar, and Bridgestone. Members of those same unions ratified agreements that basically iced out the young generation in an effort to preserve what they could of their hard-won gains. They negotiated protections for themselves where they could at the expense of their kids, most of whom will never have access to those kinds of well-compensated long-term jobs. While some fell in behind Jesse Jackson, others succumbed to the appeals of the Buchanans. Their leaders scrambled to preserve their status and influence, avoiding wherever possible a direct confrontation with capital. While they preached to their members on the dangers of the opportunistic appeals of pseudo-populist reaction, some succumbed to the opportunistic seduction of labor-management cooperation schemes in a quest for some way to avoid the realities of global corporate restructuring, or as part of a deal to protect current members over future ones and the class as a whole. They functioned as their script had been written, as functionaries within a depoliticized system of industrial relations that did not question capitals prerogatives -- a system that had for some time insulated them within the working class from the realiites of exploitation that confronted most workers.

Reality is not drawn in simple good and evil characters. Workers and union leaders participate in multiple, complex, and often contradictory realities, and thus act frequently in inconsistent and contradictory ways. It is also misleading to paint a picture of the entire labor membership or leadership, or even that of a single union, that does not examine differences created by gender, race, ethnicity, age, and skill level or occupation.

Any effort to understand what is happening to and within the working class and particularly organized labor must account for these contradictions. In particular, one needs to carefully examine what has happened to unions as institutions. Gary Chaison's *Union Mergers in Hard Times* offers some helpful insights. Just as corporate mergers and acquisitions have had substantial effects on the institutional cultures and practices of the subsequent organizations they produce, so too have mergers and acquisitions among and between labor organizations. What does it mean when AFT presents itself as a union not only of teachers but also of nurses, when the Steelworkers represent public employees, the Autoworkers seek out grad students and writers, Operating Engineers organize resort hotel employees, etc.? While many on the Left look at issues like direct election vs. delegate election of national officers as a measure of democratic opportunities (a questionable one at that), few have considered what it means to union members when their organizations become conglomeratized (is that a new verb?). What effect does this have on labor's bureaucracy, on members' militancy and willingness or ability to sustain prolonged battles with MNCs? How does it affect the process of setting priorities and strategies for organizing and bargaining, as well as allocation of resources?

This does not answer Doug's query, but it does suggest there are many questions that deserve more than passing consideration before drawing conclusions on the prospects for organized labor and its role in any scenario for fundamental social change.

(It would be instructive to examine what is happening in Puerto Rico this week, looking at specific unions, many of which are affiliates of their U.S. counterparts.)

In solidarity, Michael

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