Grand theft auto

The “Big Three” U.S. automakers lie, cheat and steal. Something to keep in mind as we watch GM, Ford and Chrysler negotiate with the United Auto Workers union.

Let’s take the lies first. The Big Three are not poor and they are not running out of money. If they declare bankruptcy, it will be because they can legally hide their international investments and profits and their past domestic profits from consideration. They do not have to cut the wages and benefits of autoworkers to stay afloat. In fact, wage and benefit increases would not end their profits. But the Big Three might have to make do with a bit smaller stock dividend. Autoworkers know all about making do with less. In the last 20 years of concessions, autoworkers and retirees have already sacrificed enough.

Do the auto companies really cheat? Well, is it cheating to shake hands on an agreement and then not live up to it? The Big Three became the Big Three on the hard work of generations of autoworkers. They made trillions of dollars over the years because autoworkers raced assembly lines to turn out the cars. Now those retired workers are reduced to being called burdensome “legacy costs.”

Whatever the details of the various contracts, the Big Three promised those workers a defined pension (a set pension amount based on length of service) and health care in lieu of money up front in more wages. Now the auto companies want to cheat and break that promise in the name of reducing “legacy costs.”

But stealing? Whoa! But think about it. Woody Guthrie put it well, in his song about Pretty Boy Floyd, the outlaw: “Some will rob you with a six gun, and some with a fountain pen.” With the stroke of a pen, the Big Three shut down productive operations and shift jobs and capital offshore. That capital and those jobs are “made in the USA” by workers. When whole communities die, when workers lose their homes, when kids can’t go to college, when people die early for lack of health care: that’s grand theft.

For those of us not at the bargaining table, there’s really not much we can do to stop this lying, cheating and stealing, right? Wrong. This is not just an economic struggle between autoworkers and the Big Three. This is also a political struggle between corporate power and the working class, between the Big Three and the rest of us.

We can let the autoworkers know that we stand in solidarity. That we understand that their fight is for all of us. That manufacturing industries are still central to the economic sustainability of a modern economy. We might not be able to do much about what happens directly at the bargaining table, it’s true, but it’s a much longer struggle. We can begin to question the right of giant transnational corporations like the Big Three to undermine and dismantle our manufacturing base.

We can work to make manufacturing jobs and economic sustainability issues in the 2008 elections. Candidates who want workers’ votes should tell us how they will pursue industrial policies that rebuild our country’s roads, bridges and transportation systems. We can make passage of the Conyers universal, single-payer health care bill (HR 676) an issue. We can demand bankruptcy law reform that puts workers at the top of the list for repayment and forces corporations to put all their worldwide assets on the table.

And we can ask all of the candidates how they will use their office to guarantee passage of the Employee Free Choice Act so that every autoworker in this country can join the union. When workers from Mercedes, BMW, Toyota, Honda and Kia are also at the table in Detroit, the union will have much more leverage. Then autoworkers can once again set standards that help raise all workers and their families to a better life.

Scott Marshall (scott @rednet.org) is chair of the Communist Party USA’s Labor Commission.