In the days when there was an Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers union (OCAW), its St. Louis business agent, Bob Tibbs, Sr., enjoyed coming to Green Party events. He would tell us that his union knew how bad nuclear power plants were and that it would be happy to get rid of them if workers would be guaranteed jobs of equal pay in other industries. That's "social unionism.'' The union looked beyond wages and working conditions--it asked if what it was producing truly benefited humanity. (1)
Social unionism is most needed in times of crisis. Auto is truly in crisis. According to the February 14, 2009 Wall Street Journal, car sales have dropped to a 30-year low. In November and December, 2008, Ford, GM and Chrysler went whining to Washington that without tens of billions in government handouts they would go belly up.
As if the big three automakers had told them what to say, Congress responded that a condition for granting bailout loans must be autoworkers' surrendering the gains won during the last half century. After a few months of browbeating its membership, UAW (United Auto Workers) executives indicated their willingness to go along with giving up the right to strike and slashing wages, health benefits, job security, Supplemental Employment Benefits and rights of new hires.
Confident that it was successfully using the crisis to bludgeon the union, on February 17, 2009, General Motors asked for $16.6 billion in addition to the $ 13.4 billion it has already received and Chrysler wanted $5 billion to be put on top of its $4 billion in pocket. With no thought of protecting jobs via a shorter work week, GM pledged to chop 37,000 line and 10,000 salaried positions. (2)
The unanswered question was: If the private corporations had so unequivocally demonstrated their inability to manage the auto industry and if they were putting the entire US economy at risk, why should they not be ''de-privatized'' or taken over by the government instead of being rewarded for incompetence? The auto barons have no interest in such a question. Neither Republican nor Democratic politicians imagined asking it. And UAW honchos did their best to pretend that nationalization had never entered the mind of the union.
A split personality with two left hands
The response of the labor and social justice left has been to demand protection of the jobs and benefits of those whose work has not already been off-shored. Auto militants seek support from other unions to fight any give-backs that union bosses seek to shove down their throats. As news stories blast the opulent squandering of millions by bankers, unionists increasingly ask why they should bear the brunt of the attack on living standards.
Meanwhile, anyone whose head has not been buried in the sand for the last decade knows that the automobile is at the root of countless environmental evils. Few devices are responsible for more destruction. It's not just the tens of thousands of fatalities and injuries on the...