Sam Gindin: Beyond Wage Cuts, Beyond the Bailout

The article reproduced below is an op-ed written by Sam Gindin for the Windsor Star

Sam Gindin

The global crisis quickly engulfing us threatens to become the worst
since the Great Depression, and this means that past ways of doing
things need to be fundamentally rethought. But Gord Henderson’s focus
on wage cuts for autoworkers (Windsor Star, November 20, 2008) is the
absolutely wrong way to go ­ that much we already learned from the
1930s, when competitive cuts in workers’ wages only aggravated the
depression. When Henderson responds to CAW President Ken Lewenza’s
defence of workers’ wages with a glib “Tell that to all those low-wage
Mexican autoworkers,” what exactly does this mean?

In the face of the general concern that consumers are retrenching (and
business consequently holding back investments), how much sense does
it make to advocate autoworkers setting a pattern for lower wages and
less purchasing power? And what kind of notion of progress and vision
for the future does the target of Mexican wage standards suggest?

The fact is that Canadian hourly compensation in the auto industry is
now below the U.S., at about par with Japan and less than three
quarters of hourly compensation in Germany (U.S. Bureau of Labour data
for 2006, adjusted for current exchange rates). Because the industry
is integrated into the American industry, Canada is affected by the
higher costs in the U.S., particularly which of health care. But here,
too, the answer is hardly to blame the workers, but rather to point to
the social and economic stupidity of the U.S. not having the kind of
single-payer public health care system that is common in the rest of
the developed world.

Union Shortfalls

Where the union can be blamed is not in what it has achieved for
working people, but in its refusal to play a leading role in
challenging the direction of the industry, especially in terms of its
laggard move to fuel-efficient, non-polluting vehicles. Saving future
jobs ­ and also addressing the thousands of lost jobs of former
members whom the bailout won’t bring back ­ necessitates correcting
that earlier shortcoming in two specific ways.

First, as absolutely essential as the bailout is, it won’t end the
crisis in the auto industry even if the Detroit-based companies adjust
their models. That’s because the industry has so much excess capacity
and slow growth will characterize at least the next few years, if not
beyond. This means that even as the union lobbies to achieve the
bailout, it needs to raise its perspective beyond auto. It needs to
start thinking about the application of existing facilities and skills
to a larger set of products. Here, the environment re-enters, but
rather than being a threat to jobs it holds out the potential of
adding jobs. If the environment is going to be seriously addressed in
this century, it will mean changing not just the kind of cars we drive
and how they are powered, but everything about how we work, consume,
travel, live. To that end, auto’s assembly, component and tool and die
shops, along with its body of skilled and committed workers, are an
asset that can be converted into producing wind turbines, solar
panels, parts for mass transit vehicles, more energy-sensitive
industrial machinery and more energy efficient home appliances.

Second, we need to move from thinking about saving the auto industry
to saving communities. The auto industry is concentrated into
particular communities that, like Windsor, were in crisis well before
GM asked for a bailout. What’s at issue is not just hanging on to jobs
in auto (which, as productivity grows, will continue to decrease over
time even with a bailout) but also finding productive jobs for all
those already unemployed or looking for their first job. To address
this crisis in the community means not only introducing new car models
and addressing the kind of conversions of Windsor’s vast productive
potential raised above, but also fixing and expanding Windsor’s
deteriorated infrastructure (like other municipalities, Windsor has a
long list of such projects sitting on the shelf) and addressing the
social needs that make cities into ‘communities’ (from resources for
public facilities and sports, to converting vacant lots into green
parks and gardens; from child-care to in-home assistance for the
disabled and the aged).

‘Leave it to the Market’ or Democratic Planning?

It should be obvious that none of this can happen if we ‘leave it to
the market,’ or even with some ad-hoc patchwork government
intervention. It requires serious national and city-level planning and
planning that develops the democratic structures to encourage and
facilitate popular participation. This takes us far beyond the auto
industry and many might say ‘sorry, I’m too busy surviving to think
about that.’ But that response has a lot to do with why autoworkers
are in their current awful predicament. If there’s anything the recent
past teaches us is that if we don’t start acing on the future now ­ if
we think it will fix itself ­ then ‘later’ becomes too late, or at
least confronts us with even more difficult problems.

Survival tomorrow and in the future means daring to think and act
‘big’ today. What kind of country do we want? What kind of community
do we want to live in? How do we get there? •

Sam Gindin was the former assistant to the past two presidents of the
Canadian Auto Workers and is currently the Packer Chair in Social
Justice at York University.

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2 thoughts on “Sam Gindin: Beyond Wage Cuts, Beyond the Bailout

  1. By the way, to a theme about development future technologies (cars, trains, planes etc)… There is remarkable film — Zeitgeist: Addendum, where it is told about enormous potential of already existing technologies and a position of the governments about it. Check it out.

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