Corporate America, dark money, and an even darker government are trying to
destroy the United Auto Workers, it would be good to consider what it means for
all of us. To do that, look back in American history to a time before the UAW
became the first great success of the Committee for Industrial Organization.
In 1935, nearly all American unions were weak. They were divided by craft. Only the most elite and skillful, nearly all white men, were even considered for union membership. The few unionized African Americans were isolated in segregated unions. White and black unions in the same workplace even scabbed on each other! The many child laborers, of course, had no union representation at all.
Color and gender lines were broken once and forever in the union. The UAW organized industrially. That is, everybody who worked in the industry was a candidate for membership. Their anti-discrimination pattern and their militant action were followed in the great upsurge that followed, and working people in America gained unprecedented power.
The UAW never limited itself to contract battles. They threw themselves into the political fight against the fascism that was growing in America and around the world. In the 1960s, the UAW organized its retirees into a national organization that fought for, and won, Medicare and Medicaid!
The explosion of
worker power went far beyond improving wages and benefits. America’s civil
rights also surged forward, and the UAW was more than just a great example to
The UAW supported
the civil rights movement. If you have looked at photos and videos of the
American civil rights movement that began in 1954, you may wonder who was that
white man in the front ranks? He was the President of the United Auto Workers!
The first version of Dr King’s “I Have A Dream” speech was written in his
Detroit office, which was in the UAW’s Solidarity House. The United Farm
Workers’ first big contribution was $10,000 delivered to Cesar Chavez and
Dolores Huerta in California by UAW Representative Pancho Medrano of Dallas,
Before the UAW, most American workers were no better off than day laborers. Corporate America has never forgiven the union for its part in bringing dignity into our workplaces. They would like nothing better than to destroy the UAW and the entire American labor movement. That’s why we have to fight!
Yesterday, I met with a futurist researcher named Mike Courtney. He wanted to interview me, he said, for a paper he’s writing on “unions and automation.”
I gave Courtney fair warning. I told him that my views don’t represent anybody but me, but I have AN AWFUL LOT of opinions.
This futurist said that some automation is apparently “good,” but some of it is also “bad.” He wanted to try to find the line distinguishing “good” from “bad” automation. He figured a union man’s opinion would assist.
I told him that unions usually oppose automation, but we’re wrong when we do. As far as I can tell, unions either do nothing about automation or they try to negotiate with corporations to ease the pain when automation is inevitable. Good examples, I told him, were probably the Mine Workers and the Dock Workers on the Pacific Coast. I understand that both of them were decimated by automation, but not until after they had negotiated as good a deal as they thought possible. In my own local union, our Negotiating Committee Chairman once set up a “New Technology Committee” to try to advise negotiators what to do about automation. I consider that just about as good as any union does nowadays. At least they tried.
I could have told him that the machines I started running in 1978 replaced 16 conventional machines and, thus, 15 jobs. The machines that eventually replaced mine, as I retired, each replaced six of the ones I ran. Five more jobs lost to automation.
I did tell him what I did as an accountant. This was back before IBM introduced their 360 mainframe to take over jobs. I started a process of bill-paying that was all computerized. The machine compared what we thought we should pay with what the vendor was requesting. If they agreed, the bill was paid as soon as it was due. If they didn’t agree, then the accountant had to reconcile them and stick reconciliation data, positive or negative numbers, back into the machine. The machine just compared two sets of data and kicked out the ones needing reconciliation. I guess I would have seen the Accounting Department decimated if I hadn’t gotten bored and quit.
I think that Futurist Courtney was a little bit surprised when I insisted that unions were wrong to oppose automation. After all, I said, automation does what capitalism does best — lowering the unit price of the products we need or want.
The only problem with automation is how its benefit is allocated. Right now, all the benefit accrues to the capitalist in charge. Workers get nothing but layoff notices or, if they are lucky, they get to stay at work and do something even more mindless and boring than what they had before.
The automation genius of today is Jeff Bezos of Amazon. He has tens of thousands of employees worldwide. They do pitifully repetitious tasks and get paid very little. Besos, last I heard, makes $215,000,000 a day!
The solution to the problems that automation causes is not to oppose it. The solution is to grab some of the benefit. The way to do that is to shorten the working day every time productivity goes up. It’s the amount of wealth that an average worker produces in an average hour. Productivity is a statistic that the Bureau of Statistics gives out, I think, every quarter. It’s often around 2%.
Productivity aggregates, like a saving account aggregates. If you put the quarterly increases into a spreadsheet, you would see that an American worker today makes more than 4 times as much wealth in an hour than he/she did at the end of World War II. If the unions had known what they were doing, they would have demanded cuts in the working day so that they wouldn’t have lost 70% of their members, as they did.
The worst part about it, I told the futurist, is that union leaders figured this out long ago. From 1937 to 1947, the heyday of the Congress of Industrial Unions (CIO) they demanded “30 for 40 with no cut in pay” every time they negotiated a contract. It meant that workers should work only 30 hours a week but continue to get paid the same that they made in 40 hours.
My own CIO union, the Auto Workers, had resolutions for “30 for 40” in every convention up to 1957. Then it disappeared. If you asked union leaders today about cutting working hours, I don’t think they would know what you are talking about.
My friend Tom Berry knows. He does a forum in North Dallas every Saturday evening. And every Saturday evening he gets up and says that Americans should demand a 6-hour day. It works out mathematically, you see: instead of 3 8-hour shifts we would have 4 6-hour shifts. Unions would be bigger and periodic unemployment would be less of a problem.
There are other advantages, too. Some researchers think that shortening the working day, completely by itself and for no other reason, would increase hourly productivity. People would just do their jobs better.
Another advantage might be that people with more leisure time might create even better ways to improve our quality of life.
Historically, the fight for shorter hours defined our worldwide labor movement. Getting the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1935 was the best thing we ever did. It said that employers had to pay their blue-collar workers overtime if they worked us more than 40 hours in a week. That’s all it said, but it was great.
But shortening the working hours has passed completely out of our collective consciousness. Most of the workers in my union don’t even want shorter hours. They grab up all the overtime they can get, just to pay their bills. A major social change like shorter working hours just doesn’t seem real to them, and that’s the union’s fault. Automation is killing American labor, and we have no program to deal with it.
I’m on KNON Radio’s “Workers Beat” talk show at 9 AM Central Time every Saturday. The podcast it on knon.org. If you are curious about what I really think, check out my personal web site.
I have to point out that, regardless of his intentions, Mr Adams’ piece has to be seen as part of the overall political and economic assault against the auto workers. It’s no coincidence that so much juicy scandal about UAW leaders reached its peak just as the contract expired and 49,000 workers were forced out on strike.
Nor is it a coincidence that the strike is starting its second week. The last one, in 2007, lasted only two days. General Motors is not giving the UAW leadership anything that they can take back to the membership with any hope of contract acceptance. it is entirely possible that they won’t.
It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the government and General Motors, and probably Ford and Fiat-Chrysler, are out to finally destroy the union that they have so carefully weakened over the last 4 decades.
Before all that, the auto workers union was the pride of the union movement. They were the first major success of the Coalition for Industrial Organizing that was begun in 1935 specifically to organize a different industry (steel).
They were the biggest union to break through divisive color and gender lines. Even after 1947, when the most progressive elements were kicked out, the UAW continued generally as the progressive end of the American union continuum. Their newspaper editor opposed the war in Vietnam. Their president marched with Dr. King. They stood against South African apartheid.
I am not saying that Thomas Adams’ criticisms aren’t true. For a lot of it, I was there, and I can vouch for some of the events he reveals. Certainly, the union made a gigantic mistake in joining management under the mistaken assumption that the main enemy of American workers was foreign workers.
The enemy then and now is and was corporate management and their stooges in government. That’s who we have to fight, not each other.
I’m on KNON radio’s “Workers Beat” program at 9 AM Central Time every Saturday. If you are curious about what I really believe, check out my personal web site
This morning on KNON.org and 89.3FM, a caller called me a policeman. He really started warming up then and called me a Republican.
The problem began with the previous caller. My guest, Kenneth Williams, was saying that the Democrats should impeach President Trump. The caller said that it didn’t matter because we would still have capitalism and we need socialism. He basically said that nothing matters in American politics and that there is nothing we can do.
I didn’t disagree with him, but I asked him what we should be doing. I think that President Roosevelt’s great quote, “Do something,” is an admirable guide. He kept talking anti-capitalism and pro-socialism and I kept asking him what kind of action he would recommend. Gridlock.
Then the phone rang again. This one was the name-caller. He, too, said that capitalism is bad and that we have to have socialism. So I asked him what we should do. He said I was trying to change the subject. I said I wasn’t changing the subject but, if we need something different, how do we get it? It seemed to make him even more angry, so that’s when he called me a Republican.
Actually, he had a point
I’m not good at hiding my opinions, and I think the second caller figured out that, truly, I do not like armchair socialists. An armchair socialist is a pseudo-intellectual who rejects everybody else’s proposals but has none of his/her own. At least, they have no proposals that they are willing to act on. Noam Chomsky strikes me as such an armchair socialist. Even though I often agree with his criticisms, I’m not fond of him overall.
Almost the opposite of an armchair socialist is a knee-jerk activist. This is somebody who takes “do something” to heart so much that they get involved in every issue without thinking. They don’t even know which side they are on.
Politics may seem like a game to some people, but not to me. It’s a matter of life or death for everybody on this planet, and it merits some serious thinking and committed action.
But, of the two, I prefer the activists. They are at least right part of the time. The armchair socialists are a drag all the time!
I’m on KNON radio’s “Workers Beat” program 89.3FM in Dallas at 9AM Central Time every Saturday. KNON.org has the podcasts. If you are curious about what I really think, check out my personal web site
I love my union dearly. The United Auto, Aerospace, and Agricultural Implement Workers of America (UAW) is largely responsible for some of the greatest leaps forward in the history of the American labor movement. But I’m terrified that we’re in trouble today.
Sing the union’s praise!
The UAW’s main contract, and one of the most important union contracts in America, expires September 14. They have decided to target General Motors then demand the same contract from Ford and Fiat/Chrysler. It’s called “pattern bargaining” and it has made the autoworkers some of the best-represented workers in American history.
Workers in Aerospace, like me, and other UAW-represented workers have done pretty well, too, but not as well as the auto workers. 151,000 of them face the contract expiration that looms over us right now. They voted by impressive margins to authorize strikes if the union negotiators decide it’s needed.
Trouble in the News
Just making everything worse, FBI and IRS agents are investigating the possibility of corruption at the highest levels. I believe 9 from the upper echelons of the union have already been convicted or pled guilty. It is fascinating to speculate on how people will react to this bad news.
I know how the Trotskyites of the 4th International feel, because I read several of their posts. They are full of glee. They call the union a “criminal conspiracy” and, apparently, can’t wait for more convictions.
A quite different reaction came from People’s World, a news service loosely associated with the Communist Party, USA. They aren’t happy with the news and want to minimize its effect on the contract negotiations. That’s my attitude, too.
Whatever some union officials may have done, if indeed they did, there’s no reason to penalize 151,000 ordinary workers for it. The government of the United States is clearly against working families, and hitting the headlines with their investigation during contract negotiations is clearly anti-worker.
UAW leaders haven’t said much to the public about the investigation. President Gary Jones has made it clear that they are focusing on the negotiations and trying to get the best possible contract. That’s exactly right, in my book.
Something Worries Me More
The UAW leadership hasn’t said a lot about the investigation, but that isn’t my main concern. What worries me to death is that they haven’t said much about the negotiations either!
I’ve been writing for some time about the recent upturn in some union activities. The most notable successes were the school employees in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona last year. But there are other, smaller successes, too. All of them involve mobilizing union members, their families, their friends, their churches, their community organizations, and even their political representatives.
Everybody who reads labor news knows that such broad mobilizations can win, and are probably the only possible way to win in today’s world. “Go it alone” is discredited. I don’t want to see the mighty UAW go alone into disaster, but I’m afraid that might happen.
So What Can You Do?
If the UAW leadership isn’t asking you for help, what do you do? All I could think of was to sound the alarm and start asking people if they would be willing to help when and if the union asks.
I made up a sort-of pledge that says, “We are backing the United Auto Workers union in negotiations with the auto industry. Many of the best things in American labor history came from the UAW. Standing with the UAW is standing for America!
This morning, I threw myself into resolving one of the biggest problems. A friend of mine wanted to start a study group on revolutionary thinking, and he asked me to lead it.
Ten of us showed up. I had asked people to work the first three modules from http://lilleskole.us/school/abcs/abcs.htm. I don’t think any of them did. The Little School has short essays and 3-4 questions on each page. Students are supposed to read the essay, if needed, and then take a shot at answering the multiple-choice questions. I don’t think any of them figured out how to click on the choices until I showed them personally. Even after that, they were critical of the format. One of them offered to re-write the school using better formatting, and I gladly agreed.
Still, they were a nice bunch of young revolutionaries with memberships in various organizations around town, especially the largest group: Democratic Socialists of America. They listened to me rave on for ten minutes or so.
I said that we can expect a large vote for Donald Trump in the next election, even though it makes no sense. People do all kinds of things that make no sense, because they aren’t necessarily using common sense. Common sense is just the sum of what we have experienced so far. It’s usually adequate for most situations.
But many people, possibly most people, don’t even use common sense when deciding political questions. They use superstition, religion, or what they might call their “sense of right and wrong.” In other words, they use their feelings.
Both our feelings and our common sense were formed, I argued, under the rule of our present system. Everything we read, hear, or view was either written by our bosses or approved by them before it got to us. Every textbook, every movie, every song, every TV newscast, and every radio program.
So if we are going to start thinking rationally, we have a lot to overcome. Even more interesting is the fact that some things have never happened to us and therefore are not represented in our “common sense” at all! How do we go about understanding things that are entirely new?
I went on to contrast the two fundamental branches of philosophy: Idealism and Materialism. Materialists believe that truth comes from the real world. Idealists believe it exists somewhere else and the real world is just an imperfect version of it. The exact location of this ideal world is unknown and probably doesn’t matter, they might say. But the truth is that it exists in their heads and is just another way of saying their feelings.
I warned the class that they would have a hard time with the rest of this study group if they did not accept materialism, at least for the purposes of this sequence of events.
Then we went around the table with questions and answers. When it came my turn again, I answered. Students asked why we had to study tiny little steps on things that we already knew. The best question was “Why do we need to study this stuff at all?”
myself with what I consider a very good answer. I said that we study this
stuff, even these small building blocks, because we would like to unify all the
newfound revolutionaries that are peopling America since the 2016 Bernie
Sanders campaign. They don’t agree on much and they don’t even have a framework
within which they could seek agreement.
So we are studying this framework. Eventually, we will have a way to make sense of the world to ourselves and to others. Then we can help unify this factious movement and move on toward victory. Until then we will be discussing things forever, just as other movements before this one have done. A good example, I said, was the Occupy movement of a few years ago. Pretty good answer I thought.
We’ll meet again in two weeks. I asked them to study the next three modules on why people think what they think, change is constant, and how to understand history. I also suggested they read the short version of the booklet, “Socialism, Utopian and Scientific.”
Yes, these are small steps. But I’m leading up to something!
I’m on KNON Radio’s “Workers Beat” program at 9 AM Central Time every Saturday. If you are curious about what I really think, look at my personal web site.
“American Factory,” Netflix documentary by Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert, 110 minutes
General Motors leaves a lot of Dayton, Ohio, workers adrift
when they shut down a big factory. In 2014, a Chinese company buys it and
starts hiring. They bring in a number of their veteran workers to show the
Americans how to manufacture automobile glass the Chinese way. The film makers
follow the workers, both Chinese and American, and managers, both Chinese and
American, around the workplace and during visits to China, and let them have
The film was recommended by the AFL-CIO, but that doesn’t
mean it’s a propaganda vehicle for our side. In an extra attachment, the two
documentarians explain their lack of bias to Barack and Michelle Obama.
Even without editorializing from the film makers, there are
some really hard-hitting scenes in the movie. One of the Americans explains how
happy he is to get the new job, how affectionate he feels toward his new
Chinese co-workers as he settles in, and then, later, how lost and miserable he
is when he gets fired for causing a 3-second delay.
The Chinese and American workers try to figure each other
out. The Autoworkers union tries to regain the membership they lost from
General Motors (the organizing drive could have easily made a good separate
movie). The American managers try to cope with the hard demands of the Chinese
owners. Some quit, some get fired, and some get laid off as the factory becomes
more and more efficient. At least one of the American managers is bitter about being
dumped. Another one, speaking Mandarin and probably thinking it won’t get
translated, shows himself to be far nastier toward the American workers than
the Chinese ever tried to be.
In a trip to a Chinese factory, the American managers try to
adjust to an entirely different culture and mentality. The always-neutral film
makers just record it all without comment.
The Chinese workers were on 12-hour shifts and some of them were
only able to see their families for a few days out of every year. They were
amazingly efficient and fanatically hard-working. Nobody commented on it, but all
of them were also quite young.
I’m on KNON radio’s “Workers Beat” talk show at 9 AM Central Time every Saturday. If you are curious about what I really think, check out my personal page