General Baker is an internationally known labor leader, a leader of the auto wildcat strikes in the 1960s, and pioneer of draft resistance during the Vietnam War. He spoke recently in Chicago, Illinois about the crisis in auto. Below are excerpts from his talk:
“The U.S. used to
have a car market of 16 million. Last year it was down to 10 million.
The industry has to cut annual production by 5-6 million cars. Plants
are closing everywhere. A crisis is developing across Michigan.
Dearborn is booming because Ford is still open there. Flint is in
terrible shape. Hamtramck is still holding on. Highland Park is in
foreclosure. The plant in Pontiac is gone. In Bay City an older
guy froze to death because his heat was cut off. A young man was
tasered. The Red Cross started helping in Macomb County since the
pantries ran out of food.
“It’s a different ball game at the negotiations table now. The cuts
have been tremendous. In the Ford deal, the active workers took the
hits. Ford forced $7 an hour in cuts. Workers lost their cost of
living, vacation, sick pay, and Christmas bonuses. The retirement fund
— VEBA — will get paid with stock or equity holdings, which are
basically worthless. Estimates are that VEBA will not hold up for six
years. At Chrysler, the retirees lost vision and dental care. The
company can now put skilled workers on the production line. They have a
no-strike clause until 2015. The GM agreement is the same. Now
the government stake will be 72%. The union gets 17.9%. The
bondholders will take the rest. So, it’s a big change.
“The situation is dire. But is hasn’t caused a huge uproar. There seems
to be a degree of satisfaction with what has been given. The government
has defended the pension and health care of the retired workers — there
are 425,000 receiving pensions from GM, and 215,000 at Chrysler — by
making sure those items do not go before the bankruptcy judge. The
government is afraid to let the auto pensions fail because it might
break the whole pension system in America. GE, IBM, AT&T — hundreds
of thousands of people — are in the pension fund. The retirees are
active, but have no vote and no say in what the union decides. People
are preparing to mobilize on single-payer health care. The fight back
so far has been at rallies called by the steelworkers. Most of the
plants are idle. There is recognition that they still can’t work
without auto. The active section of workers is going to be very angry
if things don’t turn around.
“We need to explain to people the technological role in this crisis.
Most workers are seeing the crisis as a problem of outsourcing. The
idea of re-industrializing the country is also being put forward. But,
plants are so productive today. Even those that stay open won’t need
many workers. GM, for example, is prepared to install 860 robots in its
Lordstown, Ohio plant. Ford has 45,000 workers, Chrysler has 35,000 and
GM has 65,000. The entire workforce will be half that size when it’s
over. You hear news about high-speed rail, and retooling for emission
controls. But such advanced production will not involve many workers.
“Chrysler and GM are now government-owned companies. They have
essentially already been nationalized. The active section of workers
has been beat back so far. They will have to raise the issue of
nationalization — in the interests of the people. This will affect all
workers, as autoworkers have always set the pace for all of the workers.
General Baker is available to
speak through Speakers for a New America. Call 800-691-6888 or email