Worker's perspective on saving auto in the U.S.

DETROIT – Last month my wife and I went to the North American International Auto Show. For Detroiters, this is an annual pilgrimage. Where else can you sit behind the wheel of a $110,000 Maserati when you can’t even afford to buy a Chevy Aveo?

When we walked in, we were greeted by a line of UAW members passing out plastic shopping bags with the names Ford, Visteon and UAW on them.

“Buy American” is a losing strategy because it lays the responsibility and blame on individual American consumers rather than on the real heavy decision-makers — those who have power over investment, namely, U.S. corporations and the federal government.In red, white and blue with an American flag, the message on the bags read: “Buy American.” I asked one of the distributors what plant he was from. “Wixom,” he said. “I thought that plant was supposed to be closed down,” I said. “Well, basically it is,” he said.

I wished him well, and we moved on. I turned to my wife, took another gander at the at the bag, and muttered, “Hey, what’s wrong with this picture?”

Wixom was one of Ford’s most profitable assembly plants for years. They built Lincolns there. You know, the big cars that bring big profits. Now Ford is building Lincolns in Mexico where we were told they were only going to build small cars they can’t afford to build here in Union Land.

“Quality means job security,” union leaders told us. Wixom workers gave Ford everything they had. So much for quality, productivity and loyalty. Corporations are like junkies who can never get enough dope.

The Lincoln MKZ isn’t the only good selling vehicle the Detroit Three are building in Mexico. There’s also the Ford Fusion and Mercury Milan and, coming soon, the Ford Verve. Chrysler has been building its PT Cruiser there and the 2009 Dodge Journey is next. GM is making Chevy HHRs, Saturn Vues, and Chevy 2s south of the border, too. Like the old cartoon character Pogo might have said, “We have met the foreign competition and he is us.”

You would think maybe it would be time to say bye-bye to “Buy American.”

But the UAW and other labor unions seem committed to this losing slogan. “Buy American” has been as successful a strategy as: “Hey kids, eat your carrots. They taste like crap but you’ll see a lot better.”

American unions’ foresight, unfortunately, isn’t much better than its hindsight. Where has “Buy American” gotten them and their members? Ask the guys from Wixom or several dozen other shut-down plants. Ironically, Americans did exactly what we told them to do. They bought American-made Toyotas, American-made Hondas and American-made Nissans. So as The Man said, “Mission Accomplished.”

Meanwhile, the entire UAW-represented Detroit Three workforce has shrunk to less than what GM’s workforce alone was in 1979.

So what does “Buy American” mean anyway? What’s more American: a Toyota Camry made in America or a Ford Fusion made in Mexico? Several Toyota models made in America have higher U.S. domestic content than some Detroit Three American-made products. The Camry, for example, has 80 percent U.S. content while the Ford Mustang is only 65 percent American-made.

“Buy American” is a losing strategy because it lays the responsibility and blame on individual American consumers rather than on the real heavy decision-makers — those who have power over investment, namely, U.S. corporations and the federal government.

It’s about time American unions bag this “Buy American” campaign once and for all.

The future of the UAW and the rest of organized labor depends on their ability to organize workers at the Japanese, German and South Korean transplants that have popped up on the American landscape since the 1980s. Do you think handing out “Buy American” bags is going to win over those American workers? To the typical Toyota worker in Kentucky, “Buy American” suggests a union that identifies more with its own current employers than its does with fellow auto workers who happen to be building cars with foreign-name plates?

UAW members and other good unionists need to get over the notion that GM, Ford, Chrysler, Delphi and others are American companies. They may still have their world headquarters here, but they are multi-national corporations in fact with many more workers and greater sales overseas.

A campaign, led by unions, to save America’s industrial base is long overdue. It’s goals might include (1) ending the occupation in Iraq and shifting half the money saved to convert empty factories that once produced automobiles or toys into productive factories making solar cells, wind turbines, plug-in hybrids and fuel cell vehicles, (2) renegotiating so-called “free” trade treaties like NAFTA to stop the importation of goods made under sweatshop conditions and bad environmental standards, (3) pressuring the Detroit Big Three to do what Toyota has said it will do. “Our goal is to produce all the cars we sell in the U.S. within the U.S.,” said Jim Lentz, Toyota Sales Executive, and (4) fighting to raise the living standards of workers around the world.

Hopefully, next year’s auto show will feature UAW plastic bags that read: “Build American. Buy Union.” Then maybe the year after that, the bags will read, “Workers of the World, Unite!”

--Dave Mortimer is a labor activist in Detroit.