"What I want to do is make sure we have jobs for these workers and we have first-class American automobile companies -- and we're not going to do it with the barnacles of unionism wrapped around their necks."
- Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC), All Things Considered, Dec. 10, 2008
In case anyone has any question what the fight over the bailout (I reject any euphemisms for it) of the Big 3 American automobile companies is about, Sen. Jim DeMint has done us the favor of explaining it to us precisely. It is not about supporting or refusing to support the Big 3; DeMint's solution, to send them into bankruptcy court, might well save the companies and their management. This would release the companies from their existing obligations -- including union contracts.
That's all this is about now: union busting. Which side are you on?
I am sympathetic to those who don't want public money spend on private enterprise, or who don't trust the management of the Big 3, or who think that the Big 3 are doomed anyway, or who think that the bureaucracy of the UAW is top-heavy and wasteful. To various degrees and with varied levels of enthusiasm, I accept all of these critiques.
And yet, our decision now is not to get rid of the Big 3 or their leadership. They will head to bankruptcy, under current management, if no bailout is forthcoming.
It is not about whether to save public money (more of which will go into cleaning up the consequences of an auto industry failure than would be spent now.)
It is about one concern only: the destruction of the UAW and as much of the American labor movement as the Republicans can manage in these last few weeks before their power is sapped.
In the one-hopes-they-will-become-immortal words of Jim DeMint, it is about removing the "barnacles of unionism" from "around the neck" of the auto companies. Unionism is seen by conservativees as unnecessary, socialistic, out of touch, out of date -- everything that has been said about unions since they first ever came into being. These arguments are part and parcel with non-enforcement of working conditions laws and elimination of the minimum wage: they think that America would be better off if our workers were as desperate and meek as those of China.
This web site is about electing Democrats, more and better ones. Let me tell you something about that. Put aside for now the significant benefits that the union movement (for all its troubles) has conferred on both unionized and non-unionized workers in the past century or so -- and don't think for a moment that those non-unionized auto workers in the South would have, or will have, relatively decent pay and good working conditions were it not for the need to compete with the packages negotiated up north by the UAW. Consider instead the tremendous benefits that movement has conferred upon the Democratic Party.
For much of the 20th century, it was union-provided labor that allowed Democrats to stay competitive with Republican financial advantages.
Still, when Democrats meet, we often as not meet in union halls. When we phone bank, it is often in union halls, with union workers joining other activists on the phones.
If you want to know whether a white working or middle class voter will vote Democratic, one of the best predictors has long been: "do they have a union job?"
I do not give one jolly quivering monkey hump whether you like the union movement or whether you see problems with the union movement (as in some ways I do) or whether you have substantial disagreements on policy with the union movement (as I do.) The vote taking place this week in the Senate is about Republican attempts to dismantle the Democratic coalition.
Much as when Ronald Reagan dismantled the original PATCO, the union of air traffic controllers, the hope of Senate Republicans is that a victory here will send a chill through the labor movement generally. "If it can happen to a venerable union like the UAW," people will say, "who can't it happen to?" It is also a move to make union workers feel that they have to strike and thus place the future blame for economic trouble not on the foreheads of Republican bosses, but of Democratic workers.
Labor is as much part of the uneasy and self-contradictory Democratic coalition as environmentalists, feminists, liberals, Blacks, gays, animial-rights activists, Latinos, teachers, and the like. It fits uneasily into this coalition, but it is a critical part of it.
A critical part of our Democratic coalition is in mortal danger. Some may deride those supporting a bailout bill, one that has been watered down in order to get the Chief Sociopath to support it, as the "Hafta" Coalition. Well, we "hafta" support overturning Prop 8 as well, and we "hafta" oppose mountaintop removal, and this is no less of a "hafta." I wear that badge with pride.
A critical part of our Democratic coalition is in mortal danger. Will the rest of us ride to the rescue, so that we can continue electing More and Better Democrats with their help, or will we abandom them?
Call your Senators and let them know that if the UAW goes down, there will be hell to pay. "Unionism," the bete noir of conservativism, is neither a barnacle nor a tentacle. It is a lung that helps bring oxygen to our movement. Puncture that lung and you know what happens to the rest of us.
"Solidarity forever" -- that's what the song says. Well, this week is "forever," because the repercussions for American workers of what happens in the Senate may last that long.
= = = = = = = =
Update: As many people don't know all that much about the UAW and its history, I want to give greater visibility and readership to this comment by eugene, whose knowledge of union history dwarfs mine. He identifies himself in its title as "a proud UAW member."
[The UAW is] one of the most progressive organizations in the country. Ever since their inception they have been much more than an auto workers' union. They've organized beer makers (look for the "union made" label on Miller Beer - that's UAW beer), coffee makers (Folgers), clerical workers, and even us graduate students.
That's where I came in. As a UW grad student I helped organize a union on campus earlier this decade. The UAW has been a leader in organizing grad students, who work hard for low pay and often don't receive health benefits (although with the UAW's help we do and have kept them). The UAW didn't ask us to pay dues until we ratified our first contract. Auto workers helping grad students.
But even that pales in comparison to the work UAW and Walter Reuther did to help get the United Farm Workers off the ground in the 1960s.
The UAW isn't perfect, but by god it's better than the alternative. It's a cornerstone progressive institution. If the wingnuts kill it, ALL progressives will suffer.
If any of this is new to you, that's beautiful. As some commenters note below, the best thing that can come out of DeMint's idiocy is for it to blow up in his and his party's face by fostering greater public knowledge of and appreciation for the union movement -- just as we usher in a new Administration that can act decisively to foster it.