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Hope Rests on Unions to Save Auto Industry Jobs, Benefits

Pittsburgh Courier, News Report, Bankole Thompson Posted: Dec 11, 2008

The whole talk about a bailout plan for Big Three automakersGeneral Motors, Ford and Chryslerfrom Congress is certainly going to boil down to one thing: a fight between some powerful, bullheaded and union-hating members of Congress and the United Auto Workers. There have been intense and consistent efforts, especially by neo-con chieftains, to roll unions into the dustbin of history. There is no gainsaying that the plan most likely to be offered by Congress would be one that would ask a lot of the UAW and eventually strip the once powerful labor organization of its own bargaining powers, rendering it toothless to check against corporate excesses and abuses.

That is why earlier calls for a bailout of the Detroit Three have hinged on making sure that current labor agreements with the Big Three are all open for renegotiation. At this defining moment with an economic peril before us, with families already on the edge of their seats heading to work daily not knowing when the pink slip will be placed in their workplace mailbox, it is important to ask if labor is needed today.

Once upon a time labor had a glorious history driven by a compelling social justice message about the wrongs of society and the shortcomings of our government. The labor movement worked hand-in-hand in many ways with the Civil Rights Movement and other rights groups. Labor has always been seen as the panacea to the ills of corporate bosses and shortsighted government proposals that do not offer protections for workers.

Labor defended the needs of workers who have long been exploited by the captains of free market enterprise and money is might merchants. But somewhere along the line throughout the duration of its own cause, labor became complacent with its power that once brought elected officials and the powerful to their knees.

This is an issue raised by entertainer and activist Harry Belafonte, during the 2006 National Black Peoples Unity Convention in Gary, Ind. Belafonte, a darling of labor, gave his colleagues in the labor movement a mouthful when he called out its leaders for ignoring the plight of workers.

With rhetorical deftness Belafonte kept asking where labors voice was on the most important issues facing the nation. He was referring to the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina and others. The legendary Belafonte felt that labor leaders had left their flocks behind and were now busy partying, bragging and pounding their chests about how powerful theyve become.

Obviously, it became clear to a lot of people that labor engages in selective battles. Therefore, some have concluded that we no longer need labor to fight for us because the leaders only look out for themselves and nothing else when they get into those velvet cushion meetings.

Yes, labor has a lot of issues. Evidence does suggest that some of the individuals that have come out to represent unions are not the best persons to be in those positions. If labor is still about social justice within the workplace, then it better have individuals with the guts to speak out and demand for change.

The current UAW president, Ron Gettelfinger, made a definitive case before Congress for the bailout. I recalled a symposium that was partly sponsored by labor where I had to get labors take on affirmative action and was expecting to speak to a top labor official. After I identified myself and what I was looking for this particular individual basically declined the interview without any reason. I wondered if his members were paying their dues to be mute when the media comes asking serious questions about labors stance on the issues.

My experience with that member of the labor brass left an indelible impression on me regarding labors seriousness in tackling the tough issues their members are paying the dues for and wanting a return on their investment. But my encounter last week with another labor official (who is not as high profile as the one who declined my request for interview) convinced me that we still need the labor movement.

And those who criticize labor need to hear from George McGregor, president of the UAW Local 22 on Michigan Avenue. I never read about McGregor in the media or see him at the officialdom events that so frequently put demands on my schedules, until I decided to pay him a visit at his office to hear his side of the auto bailout debate.

When I arrived at the home of the UAW-Local 22, within a few minutes I was ushered into McGregors office.

The 60-something man was at ease and wanted to tell me how the financial crisis of the auto industry is taking a toll on local union shops.

First lets understand that since 2000, on the eve of George W. Bushs first term, labor statistics show that 2,832,000 union members were employed in manufacturing jobs across the country. By 2007, after seven years of the Bush era, the number of union jobs in manufacturing had plummeted by 39 percent to 1,734,000. That amounted to an estimated loss of 1.1 million union jobs.

What does that mean to local unions like McGregors? Disaster. McGregor, whose work at GM has spanned four decades, starting in 1968, when he joined the automotive company at age 20 after returning from Vietnam. He questioned the wisdom of denying the carmakers a $25 billion loan that would protect millions of families from going homeless and hungry, while taxpayers are being made to finance the war in Iraq to the tune of $10 billion a month.

With a non-conformist attitude backed by grammatical frankness, McGregor made his case for the $25 billion loan Congress is hesitant about giving to Detroit. I cant understand how we can spend $10 billion a month in Iraq and yet we cant find money to save American jobs in the auto industry, McGregor said. The money we are spending in Iraq, we are not getting it back. But we are willing to spend that much in Iraq where people are dying and still would not loan the auto industry money that they will pay back. The people running this country are absolutely backward.

McGregor, whose members at the Hamtramck/Detroit GM plant manufacture the Cadillac DTS, said autoworkers are severely affected by the crisis. For example, unions are laying off staff members and forcing essential positions to a part-time basis. Other necessary amenities, such as toll-free numbers for retirees and those who are not mobile to call in and discuss their monthly health benefits with union stewards, are being eliminated, he said.

This same Congress voted for the war in Iraq, gave AIG a bailout and no one is saying anything about it, McGregor said. I am not saying GM did not make its own mistakes, but lets face it, if they dont give the loan there will be a ripple effect for retail stores where most of our workers shop.

On the Al Sharpton show last week I asked why the Big Three never took some of their retirees and workers to plead their case on Capitol Hill. It would seem to make sense that presenting struggling families whose survival have long been tied to the continued existence of the Big Three before Congress would make a bolder statement than rich guys flying in on jets.

If this bailout is going to work out we have to put a face to the crisis. That means Congress needs to hear from the people themselves who would be affected most by the possible crash of the auto industry. People like McGregor, who has spent more than 40 years and is still working for GM, can talk about how this can disrupt the lives of senior citizens who call his office every month to discuss their health benefits.

The case for a bailout has to go grassroots. That is what forces politicians to action. We saw it in the campaign of President-elect Barack Obama when he was able to galvanize a grassroots movement and gave ownership of his campaign to ordinary people and change occurred.

The Big Three executives will have to transfer ownership of this bailout discussion to the folks under them who will be most affected. That is why labors role is crucial now.

In an interview with Sheldon Friedman, a noted labor economist in Washington, I asked him to answer critics who say labor is losing ground because of ineffective leadership.

The labor movement has been under sustained corporate and right wing attack for the greater part of the last 60 years, and these attacks have intensified during the Reagan and Bush II Republican eras. Against this backdrop, it is remarkable that we still have a labor movement in this country, Friedman said. It is easy but fundamentally incorrect to blame the leadership for the troubles of the labor movement and the dire straits of Americas working class. Where workers still have access to it, collective bargaining still helps them tremendously. Union members wages are 30 percent higher than the wages of non-union workers. Members are far more likely than non-union workers to have health insurance and pensions through their jobs.

Obama, who ran as a labor candidate told the automakers to bring a more comprehensive plan that will warrant taxpayer bailout of the auto industry. The president-elect himself has made it clear that the assistance for Detroit must include protections for labor, suppliers and others.

Bankole Thompson directs editorial expression for the Michigan Chronicle and spearheaded the newspapers coverage of the 2008 presidential election. To read his articles and blogs on the presidential election, visit www.michronicleonline.com. Reach him via e-mail at bthompson@michronicle.com.

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