“Anxious autoworkers gathered outside the San Francisco office of Sen. Dianne Feinstein on Saturday and urged quick passage of a federal bridge loan plan for the auto industry that will help stave off potential job losses.” Autoworkers rally in support of bailout. San Francisco Chronicle, December 7, 2008
The American auto industry is in crisis. Sales figures have plummeted; GM even threatens bankruptcy. So the Big Three have asked the government and the country for loan guarantees and other help. By now, it is clear to everyone that the bailout includes consequences for the workers – and indeed not pleasant ones. Why does everybody know this – even before any concrete plan is made public? Everyone knows this because of their experience of life in capitalism: workers are dependent on the success of the company they work for. They constantly get to feel this dependence. How many jobs exist in the auto industry, whether there will be new hires, whether overtime or part-time work or closures are announced is completely based on “business conditions.” If it goes badly for the company – like now in the crisis – then it also goes badly for the workers; they lose their jobs and with it their incomes or (in the best case) have to accept wage cuts.
It's a big mistake to make the Big Three your concern and to argue for their bailout because you are dependent on them!
• For starters: the opposite equation – it goes well for the Big Three, it goes well for the workers too – this has never happened. In years when in posts fat black numbers, you never hear the company front office say that it will voluntarily raise wages or hire more so that its workers who have to count every penny can work for the success of the company more comfortably. Rather, it anounces that you must reach beyond the success already reached by more effort next year, and this is why wages must remain low and the number of workers lowered.
• Next: it is not necessarily good for the business of GM if it sells a lot of cars. It goes well for GM if car sales bring in a lot of profit, and this depends on how high costs are in comparison to the market price of the cars. The wages of the workers are part of the costs. Cheapening them is the basis for low costs and high profits. Costs are also low if a large number of cars can be produced with as few employees as possible. This leads to permanent changes in the workplace and to the constant increase of the work load on the workers.
• Finally: the most beautiful and cheapest cars, as well as the hard work of the employees, is worth nothing if – as now – the cars can’t be sold, because all the car companies have done the same thing: all of them have increased production and have rationalized in order to produce more and more cars with fewer and fewer employees. If this has happened, the already produced cars can't be discontinued, they are of course not given away, but land in the dump, and the “dear employee” is just sent on leave and then, maybe, to the Jobs Bank. Then the remaining workers can produce with even more effort more cars for even less money.
The auto workers know all this, by the way, only too well. In exactly these ways, GM has in recent years over and over again coped with its dissatisfaction with its current business and shot into the profit zone. The exact same thing looks somewhat different to the GM workers: with its strategy for success, GM inflicts on them a kind of permanent crisis.
First, their existence is permanently insecure – nobody has any control over what his workplace will look like tomorrow or whether he still actually “has” one. And secondly, everybody finds that they always have a financial crisis of their own. The wage is oriented not in the slightest to what you need to live, but to what the company concedes so that it can achieve as large a profit as possible with the labor.
But unlike other economic agents, the workers can't hope that their crisis alarms anybody and requires a bailout. A GM worker can't go to his landlord and assert his crisis in order to lower the rent. His financial troubles count just as little there as at Wal-Mart. He can change nothing in their prices – very much in contrast to the price of his labor, which GM constantly slashes.
The crisis – a new argument for the same game
“Normal economic times” already show how shitty it is to have to earn a living in a capitalist company: you can never plan your life because nothing is secure. Every wage projection always comes under review for cuts so that the company can get its act together with its needs. And every technical advance obtained by the company is not to make the work shorter or more pleasant – what is made easier in hard physical effort is replaced by repetition and stress.
And now there is a “crisis” – so the Big Three want to cope with it by pushing through a new round of concessions from the workers. This takes place to lower labor costs. This proposal declares as the most natural thing in the world that a part of the necessary livelihoods of the employees is simply a luxury that can and must be scrapped because the company is in trouble. The staff is treated as what it is: an appendage of the company which GM is free to tinker with.
For GM, the fact that its workers depend on a job for their livelihoods is constantly used to extort them in order to adjust the relation of wage and profit so that its profitable production works out. In crisis, it wants one thing above all: just like in normal competition, the workers should submit to every measure that comes at their expense.
Not for the first time it turns out that for the workers:
Their job is the only thing they “have” – and precisely because of this, anything but their means
This could also be learned from the struggles of recent years in which the workers over and over again accepted tough cutbacks to protect their jobs in the long term (see Wage Reduction Made in the USA: Auto Capital Eliminates Its Social Dead Weight). This costs them a lot in previously achieved wage gains and brings longer working hours, less breaks and tougher performance requirements. The promise given in return is quite flimsy: if the balance sheet of the company is not ok, it is indeed (like now) worth nothing – another crisis management program is waiting.
By the way: a state “bailout” for employees in the crisis already exists! It does not have to be established or even demanded: the unemployment office anticipates all those not willing to grab the new jobs promised by GM ...