What the UAW Made
by Trapper John
Sun Dec 21, 2008 at 02:13:38 PM PST
I spent the summer of 1999 working for the UAW legal department. It was the best job that a union-oriented first-year law student could ask for: great bosses, co-workers who shared your values, and interesting work. But most importantly, there was a pervading sense that you were -- in some small way -- helping to build the one institution that, more than any other, made the American middle class. Every day, I'd walk into the doors of Solidarity House, the massive, International Style union headquarters on the Detroit River, and know that this was the place where Walter Reuther and his team of talented unionists crafted the strategies that built the post-war boom. I'd know that in that same building, Steve Yokich -- the brilliant, if often abrasive, president of the UAW -- and the other leaders of the union were planning to preserve what Reuther had wrought against the depredations of NAFTA and the WTO. And I knew that I was doing my part, however minor, to contribute to the cause. You simply can't buy that feeling.
But to those of my friends outside of the labor movement, the UAW was a mystery. Actually, to call it a "mystery" would imply that they cared about it enough to wonder about it, which they didn't. The UAW didn't mean much, if anything, to them -- it was just either just another union, or some anonymous facet of the auto industry, or three letters that signified nothing at all. And I couldn't blame them. It's not like labor history is really taught as part of standard American history. It's not as if the news media covers labor or workplace issues with any degree of understanding or interest. That summer, I often found myself wondering how it could be that an organization that was so critical to the creation of modern America could be so ignored. And so I thought a lot about how we could change things, how we could put the letters U-A-W on the lips of the pundits and the politicians again.
Well, this wasn't what I had in mind.
Ten years after my stint at Solidarity House, the UAW is finally on the minds and lips of just about everyone, as the nation's attention is focused on the precarious state of the auto industry. And thankfully, a majority of Americans, if not a majority of the Senate, realize that we can't just blithely cite "creative destruction" and let an industry that directly and indirectly accounts for about ten percent of American jobs just up and die. But even as there seems to be a consensus that it's in the best interests of America to save the Big Two-and-a-half, there's a conflict about what the UAW ought to be forced to do in exchange for government assistance to the car companies. Bob Corker wanted to break the union in exchange for a Detroit bailout. George Bush's TARP assistance plan appears to follow Corker's lead. Even some Democrats talk about UAW members needing to make less money.
But I don't think you can talk about what UAW members should make, unless you first acknowledge what the UAW has made.
Sure, this is a bold claim. Yet it's hard to dispute that the UAW had a greater hand than any other single institution in the creation of what we know as the American middle class. Harold Meyerson wrote a terrific column last week on this very topic:
In its glory days, under the leadership of Walter Reuther, the UAW was the most farsighted institution -- not just the most farsighted union -- in America. "We are the architects of America's future," Reuther told the delegates at the union's 1947 convention, where his supporters won control of what was already the nation's leading union.
Even before he became UAW president, Reuther and a team of brilliant lieutenants would drive the Big Three's top executives crazy by producing a steady stream of proposals for management. In the immediate aftermath of Pearl Harbor, Reuther, then head of the union's General Motors division, came up with a detailed plan for converting auto plants to defense factories more quickly than the industry's leaders did. At the end of the war, he led a strike at GM with a set of demands that included putting union and public representatives on GM's board.
That proved to be a bridge too far. Instead, by the early 1950s, the UAW had secured a number of contractual innovations -- annual cost-of-living adjustments, for instance -- that set a pattern for the rest of American industry and created the broadly shared prosperity enjoyed by the nation in the 30 years after World War II.
Indeed, it was Reuther's UAW that established the détente between organized labor and capitalists that engendered -- or at least facilitated -- the unprecedented post-war gains in both productivity and household income. By settling the 1950 Big Three contract, which became known as the "Treaty of Detroit," the UAW exacted gains for its members that allowed them to move firmly into a new middle class, with retirement and health security as the cornerstones of the new prosperity. In exchange, big business obtained a sense of relief, as the Treaty of Detroit represented a new, thoroughly American unionist approach to collective bargaining that eschewed the Marxist demand for ownership of the means of production. The right wing extremists who would begin their takeover of the Republican Party twenty years later excoriated the deal as creeping socialism, and Communists pilloried Reuther and the UAW as capitalist lackeys and sellouts. But as the radicals fumed, the nation prospered, and the hardworking men and women of the UAW -- and subsequently, the rest of blue-collar America, both union and non-union -- reaped the benefits of a mature labor peace that saw workers get their piece of the capitalist pie.
There's no question that other unions played a role in the establishment of the postwar peace, but the UAW played the leading role -- both because it bargained with America's biggest corporations, and because of Walter Reuther's charisma and ideological leadership. As a former socialist who spent a couple years in the Soviet Union, Reuther recognized the watershed importance of a labor union at the height of its powers, in the most critical industry in the nation, choosing to broker a mutually advantageous master agreement rather than pressing for gains that might kill the goose who laid the golden eggs. It's true that the building trades, among others, had been negotiating agreements that recognized the permanency of capitalism for decades prior to the Treaty of Detroit, but the leadership of the construction unions had always been fundamentally accepting of the idea of wage labor. Reuther and the UAW came out of a far more radical milieu, and their decision to embrace a sort of American social democracy -- to create an American social contract -- had ripple effects that essentially killed the Marxist left in America. But it also played a massive role in building a broad middle class that enjoyed real security, that didn't survive at the tender mercies of their employers. That was something new in American life, and it persisted for thirty years, give or take.
If the UAW's impact on the sociopolitical scene of the United States was limited to its role in collective bargaining, you could still argue that it played as important a part in the creation of the pragmatic, effective American left as most institutions. Of course, the UAW has done far, far more. Meyerson, again:
During the Reuther years, the UAW also used its resources to incubate every up-and-coming liberal movement in America. It was the UAW that funded the great 1963 March on Washington and provided the first serious financial backing for César Chávez's fledgling farm workers union. The union took a lively interest in the birth of a student movement in the early '60s, providing its conference center in Port Huron, Mich., to a group called Students for a Democratic Society when the group wanted to draft and debate its manifesto. Later that decade, the union provided resources to help the National Organization for Women get off the ground and helped fund the first Earth Day. And for decades after Reuther's death in a 1970 plane crash, the UAW was among the foremost advocates of national health care -- a policy that, had it been enacted, would have saved the Big Three tens of billions of dollars in health insurance expenses, but which the Big Three themselves were until recently too ideologically hidebound to support.
Narrow? Parochial? The UAW not only built the American middle class but helped engender every movement at the center of American liberalism today -- which is one reason that conservatives have always held the union in particular disdain.
From leadership on civil rights, to reform of the Democratic Party, to an early place in the vanguard of real health reform, the UAW has time and again stood out in American labor for its commitment to broad progressivism. The health example is particularly instructive. At a time when many other unions were opposed to national health care, on the grounds that health insurance was a perk of being a union member and that universal care would be a disincentive to unionization, Reuther and the UAW strenuously argued for government insurance. And for the past forty years, the union has been at the forefront of the push to expand Medicare, Medicaid, and to create a single-payer system.
UAW President Ron Gettelfinger often quotes from a 1968 speech by his legendary predecessor Walter Reuther, which is as on point today as it was almost 40 years ago.
"If we are to act realistically and adequately in order to deal with this health care crisis," Reuther said then, "we must first free ourselves of the illusion that we really have a health care system in America. What we have, in fact, is a disorganized, disjointed, antiquated, obsolete nonsystem of health care."
The flaws that Reuther identified in America's approach to health care eventually morphed into the gigantic legacy costs -- about $100 billion just in health care promises to GM, Ford and Chrysler retirees -- that have become such a burden to Detroit's auto industry.
That's unfortunately a common theme in the history of the auto industry -- the UAW sounding a warning that's ignored by the companies, the UAW being proven right, and the UAW subsequently taking the blame for the companies' shortsightedness. The union fought harder than anyone for 40 years to shift health burdens off individual enterprises and on to the government, the Big Three refused to join in the push for national insurance, and now the union is being blamed for the cost of auto industry health insurance. (Hell, the union lost its Canadian affiliates to a schism in the early Eighties, in large part because the Big Three could give the Canadian locals a better deal due to Canadian national health insurance.) Likewise, the UAW takes a lot of blame for Detroit's predilection for gas guzzlers, despite the fact that the union has since the late Forties "suggested that Detroit not put all its bets on bigness, that a substantial share of American consumers would welcome smaller cars that cost less and burned fuel more efficiently."
Perhaps that's the greatest tribute to the UAW's success in building the progressive movement: the union is presumed to be so strong, and so effective, that when it has failed to get the employers to agree with it, the union has unfairly taken the blame.
Much has been made during the bailout debate about the supposed efficiency of the Japanese, Korean and German non-union "transplant" facilities. The transplants, which are primarily concentrated in Southern states with free-rider laws, are lauded as lean operations that still pay their employees a fair wage. And indeed, they are certainly leaner operations than UAW plants, due in large part to their last-mover advantage. And they do pay decent wages. But that's just half the story.
The transplants are located in the South precisely because they have been designed to avoid unionization. Most Southern states have enacted free-rider laws (often known, in an Orwellian twist, as "right to work laws") which require unions selected as bargaining representatives to represent employees who refuse to pay dues. Imagine if citizens of the US could choose whether or not to pay taxes, and non-payers were still entitled to all government services. Imagine how quickly the government would wither and die. That's why unionization is so hard in free-rider states. And that's why Mercedes, and BMW, and Nissan have built nearly all of their plants in the South. (That, and the fact that the transplants have benefited from massive corporate welfare in the form of gigantic tax breaks and property gifts from friendly Southern state governments.)
But the foreign manufacturers know that situating in the South isn't enough to guarantee that the UAW won't successfully organize. To do that, they need to pay their workers enough in base wages -- if not in benefits -- to ensure that the employees aren't dazzled by the prospect of union-won pay increases. Consequently, the non-union auto workers earn only a little less than UAW members, and far more than other non-union manufacturing workers. In short, the non-union auto workers are riding on the coattails of the UAW -- their wages are inflated to stave off the union. If the UAW were busted, all those Nissan workers who love their company and think that the company takes care of them would see their wages slashed overnight. So when Bush tells the UAW that they have to take a pay cut to the non-union transplant rate -- well, in a very real way, the UAW negotiated that rate. It's primarily because of the UAW -- not the good graces of the Japanese and German auto executives who don't pay the health costs in the US that they do in their home countries -- that the non-union auto workers have a decent standard of living.
My family was one of the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, that saw its fortunes dramatically improved by the rise of a powerful UAW. My maternal grandfather was born in the early Twenties to a decidedly working-class Irish-German family in Buffalo. His father hadn't gone to college, and he wouldn't either -- the family wasn't poor, but it didn't have the money to send kids to college. After the war, he came back to Buffalo, and got a job as a die maker at Trico, the world's largest windshield wiper manufacturer.
Fast forward to today. My grandfather is gone -- three packs a day, as well as the lingering effects of too many months in a German stalag, killed him far too early. He died in the late Eighties, just a few years after retiring with a full pension from Trico. But five of his six kids are still with us, and every single one of them went to college (as did my deceased aunt). All six survived childhood relatively healthy. And the grandkids all grew up solidly in the middle class, and headed off to prestigious colleges and grad schools and most are working in white collar jobs and get to travel overseas occasionally and generally are pretty damn bourgie. And that's great. And I know that there are a lot of factors that contributed to my family's upward mobility, including the rise of cheap public universities (since declined) -- but I also know that I wouldn't have had the relatively comfortable life that I now have if it hadn't been for the UAW and its contracts, which provided my mother's family with the security and the income to allow her and her siblings to reach their potential. I wouldn't be who I am, as a person living in formerly-segregated DC, if the UAW hadn't fought for civil rights, and the rights of people of all races to live together as equals. And I wouldn't be able to fight for passage of the Employee Free Choice Act -- and the rebirth of the American labor movement and the American middle class -- had the UAW not created the modern labor movement and the American middle class in the first place.
In short, the UAW made America work the way we want it to work. And while the union has undoubtedly also made mistakes throughout its history, you'd be hard-pressed as progressives to identify an institution that has done more for working Americans of all stripes. So I support an a auto industry bailout, because I'd like to see us help the UAW keep making things: making cars, making a decent and dignified living for its members, and making change for all of us. God knows the union's done a helluva lot more for us than Goldman Sachs.