Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Teacher Unions and the UAW

Why Teachers Have an Interest in the Survival of the US Auto Industry


By Michael Fiorillo, Chapter Leader, Newcomers High School

The fate of the US auto industry, and particularly General Motors, has been much in the news lately. The pitiful performance of auto executives appearing before Congress with their begging cups, the morality play of their flying in private corporate jets to Washington to plead for taxpayer assistance, has become a rallying cry for people who are appalled at the long lines of executives seeking corporate welfare. People are rightfully upset that incompetence and dishonesty in business are being tolerated, if not rewarded, by their tax dollars. Oddly, though, most of the anger and calls for discipline have been directed at Detroit, rather than the banking and securities industry. What are some of the deeper reasons and assumptions behind this, and what are the implications for teachers?

This may seem like a strange topic to bring up on a blog that mostly concerns itself with educational issues. But in fact the fate of unionized teachers is now closely intertwined with the fate of the UAW. The reason is that, just as anti-union forces are calling for letting GM go bankrupt – which would lead to the nullification of contracts between the Big Three and the UAW – emerging fiscal crises for states and localities will energize forces that have been calling for the elimination of tenure, work rules, defined benefit pensions and union representation altogether for educators. In this sense, the fate of unionized autoworkers and teachers are joined. The attacks on the unionized auto workforce – coded in statements by senators from right-to-work states and financial industry types – are a prelude to what educators will be facing shortly as states and localities grapple with collapsing tax revenues and financial crises. It’s a scenario right out of Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine: those with their hands on the levers of power will use crisis and disruption to implement policies that they could never have otherwise achieved.

First, a disclaimer: while the industrial base of the US must be preserved – and the auto industry is its core – that doesn’t mean that Detroit can continue with business as usual. Auto management must be replaced, and the industry must re-tool in order to produce reliable, fuel-efficient vehicles that people want to buy. The industry must also be reconfigured for production geared toward less reliance on cars and toward investment in mass transit. However, finance capital must not be allowed to fatten itself on the carcass of the auto industry, otherwise we will see investment bankers earning huge fees to dismantle auto plants and ship them to Mexico, China and elsewhere. Additionally, the federal government must resolve the health care crisis, which accounts for a large part of Detroit’s competitive disadvantage.

Much of the moralizing about letting the auto industry go under masks a deep-seated antagonism to union standards and worker rights. Critics of Detroit openly say that autoworker wages and benefits must immediately fall to the levels paid by Toyota, Honda, et. al. in their non-union plants in the South. This overlooks the fact that the wages workers enjoy in those plants are entirely dependent upon and follow from the wages established by years of struggle by the UAW. We could call it the Invisible Hand of labor economics. Non-union auto workers, and non-union factory workers in general, only get what they do because of the scales and standards established by the UAW. Here in NYC, non-union construction workers only get the wages they do because of the scales established by the organized trades. Likewise in education, the pay, benefits and working conditions in non-unionized schools track – at a lower rate – the scales established by the union. Take away the protections earned by unionized workers – whether they be teachers, electricians or auto workers – and you will quickly see a “race to the bottom” with employers going on the offensive to lower their cost structures and exert absolute control over the work lives of their employees.

People must question the fact that, while Wall Street and the banks have literally been given blank checks by the Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve Bank – money that has not been used to lend to the real economy but has instead been used to buy up competitors and strengthen balance sheets – Detroit, which has asked for a mere fraction of what the financial industry has had thrown at it, must jump through hoops to obtain a fraction of the needed funds. When you think about it, Congress seems to be saying that when an industry is run by criminals, parasites and predators (Wall St.) rather than idiots (Detroit), it is deserving of special consideration.

Ultimately, saving the auto industry is even in Wall Street’s interest, although their short term greed blinds them to that reality, for what will happen to the parasites and predators when they kill off the remaining hosts and prey? Who will continue to buy their junk and pay their mutual fund management fees?

So, teachers and other school workers, don’t fall into the trap of supporting attacks on “lazy” and “spoiled” auto workers, and how they must be subjected to the discipline of the market. Those arguments are being turned against us, and the screams will become louder.

Giving credence to the points Michael makes, Fred Klonsky posts this video of Congressman Mark Kirk urging the use of bankrupting GM to bust the UAW contracts.


  1. This is an interesting take on union busting. I was all for letting the auto companies go under, but this makes some sense. We get rid of these big companies and their unions...who will be made to go under next? It's a thought. It's the CEOs at the top that need to change and the industry has to reform itself and stop fighting ecological necessity.

  2. Michael,

    This is a timely intervention into the conversation about the economy. You've done a great service. We must be careful of CEO-bashing, however. Some execs are interested in building their companies and benefiting their workers. Let's look into the specifics. I like the part about using the autoworkers for more mass transit manufacturing as well as automobiles. One question you didn't discuss is, what is the UAW doing to defend their workforce? Are they any better than what we've got in the UFT?

    We should discuss the economy and ICE's orientation within the UFT on this issue at the next ICE meeting. Your post would be a perfect point of departure.


  3. Robert,

    Although my focus was on the structural aspect of union's place in the economy, this is a useful place to mention the UAW's sorry record of "collaboration," as Randi would say, with management. This has been happening for well over twenty years, with the result being evaporated or exported jobs and a two-tier wage system. The UAW also sullied itself by joining with management to fight high fuel mileage standards.

    As for owners and managers wanting to develop their businesses, that is certainly true. My intention was to point out and polemicize against the stranglehold that finance capital has on the economy, to the detriment of manufacturing and other productive forms of investment. I stand by that.


  4. UAW has killed the goose that layed golden eggs. Now it's trying to let it live for a bit longer, to proceed with slaughter when "times are better". This is because all of you think Americans are *entitled* to higher wages than say Chinese in Shanghai "sweatshops" that do not have labor unions. Wait and see. This is year 300AD, barbarians that DO NOT MIND living in shit and sweatshops are about to take over.


Comments are welcome. Irrelevant and abusive comments will be deleted, as will all commercial links. Comment moderation is on, so if your comment does not appear it is because I have not been at my computer (I do not do cell phone moderating). Or because your comment is irrelevant or idiotic.