Saturday, April 25, 2009

Nissan, Smyrna, Corker, and the erosion of labor bargaining power -- REWRITE

By John Case

The New Yorker runs an extensive profile this week on Nissan, Smyrna TN, Senator Corker, and the auto crisis. Part of the magazine's "New Order" series. Due to New Yorker restrictions, I cannot post the article in full, though I highly recommend it.
Written by Peter Boyer, the article traces the origins of the current debacle to the first oil crisis and the arab oil embargo of 1970 that quadrupled gas prices for US consumers, which inspired Japanese manufacturers to transplant to the US. Personally, I would go farther back, to the character of mass production materialized in Henry Ford's massive plants of the early 20th century and the "Taylor" system of industrial organization that turned workers into creatures with little need of brain and capable of performing repetitive, time-measured, motions day after day tending an ever accelerating assembly line. "Maggots with hands" would be the appreciative term coined by H.L. Mencken -- famous cynic and racist of the era --- who thought such work perfectly suitable for "lower orders of the animal kingdom." Conversely, Lenin and the Communists had a different notion that saw in the emerging propertyless proletariat a force of cooperation and organization that could topple the arrogant and pompous masters of capital perch on top of society worldwide, and proceed to "share the wealth". In the US, communist and socialist organizers and strike leaders like Wyndam Mortimer, Bob Travis, and many more radical, democratic forces built powerful and effective committees for industrial organization of a different kind than those envisioned by Taylor!
The stigma against communism and socialism, however, was already growing strong in the US as the FBI and Immigration authorities, hand in hand with right wing media and politicians, worked day and night to repress them. Somehow a compromise somewhat less ambitions or visionary than Lenin's, or WZ Foster's, or Earl Browder, or Eugene Debs, or even Norman Thomas, but still very militant, found its principle manifestation in the United Automoble Workers Union under the leadership of Walter Reuther. Reuther pursued a class struggle trade union policy that helped compel the consolidation of auto companies into giant corporations by forcing steady increases in pay, benefits and on the job protection to match the increasing scale and productivity of auto production. It did not matter in the post-WWII era if some auto companies, like White Motor, or Studebaker, fell by the wayside. The auto market was virutally limitless after the launching of the Eisenhower National Defense Highway system, and after Los Angeles proved that an entire new era of housing and community development around freeways and autos would revolutionize culture in the US. Anyone laid off in a failed auto company could easily find work in another one that was rapidly expanding production. Few who ever worked in an automobile production plant in the US would fault Reuther's strategy. It helped realize the dream of middle class life for American workers that was hardly less than heaven compared to what fate provided in pre-war,pre-union, depression era factory work and living conditions.
Nonetheless, 1970 did come. With high oil and gas, Japanese automobiles' fuel efficiency found its niche in the US market, and their share of the US auto market steadily gained ground. Yet their progress remained slow, as US consumers did not easily give up their love of big cars and big engines--especially with fast and reliable roads spreading over the entire continent. Foreigners from European nations that always paid an even higher -- often double -- premium for fuel, either through its scarcity or through taxes, still swarmed the US where the ideal vacation was to get in a car and drive thousands of miles at a fraction of the costs at home. So GM, Ford and Chrysler stalled meeting the Japanese (and Volkswagen) threat. After all, re-engineering their plants was a huge expense and small, fuel-efficient cars were not as profitable as buicks and cadillacs, or later, SUVs and Hummers. Plus, the pattern of adversarial bargaining in labor relations was very ingrained, and the UAW had no interest in any management rights schemes that looked like going back to the "maggots with hands" days. 3% productivity raises, plus COLA, first dollar medical coverage, and sanctions against arbitrary layoffs or reassignments became bulwark issues where the Union defended its ground.
In 1970 the top selling Japanese product in the US, manufactured in Japan, was the Datsun, built by Nissan. That division of Nissan was run by Takashi Ishihara, now the President of Nissan. Ishihara had a very low opininon of US manufacturing and workmanship and believed his company's product was not only more fuel efficient, but also better made. He thought the culture of vigorous and antagonistic labor relations characteristic of both US auto management, and the UAW, expecially in regard to inflexibility in work-rules and assignment, a fatal flaw in US Automobile manufacturing. So, he was cautious when the idea of building plants IN the US first arose in corporate discussions. Nonetheless, he went out shopping, and found Smyrna, Tennessee. It met all the qualifications he sought:
  • it was rural -- there would be no trouble from "urban turmoil".
  • the workforce had never worked in auto production before, and thus was not "poisoned" with the culture of the Big 3.
  • It was near a turnpike and rail transport.
  • local officials were "delighted" to collaborate and cooperate -- the latest example bing Bob Corker (now known as "The Senator From Nissan").
  • The Smyrna plant became the largest plant in the US and the most productive US auto plant throughout the 1980's.
Soon other Japanese, and German, and US auto companies transformed the terrain from Texas to South Carolina into a new "auto corridor". Since 1975, Michigan has lost 85,000 auto jobs, but the South has gained that and many more. For Southern workers the new work was irresistable. Health benefits, wages, pensions -- while not equal to Detroit, were lightyears ahead of anything remotely available. Nissan allowed every worker, every year, to lease a new car at steep discounts. Plus, the company, whild not immune to business cycles, invested considerable time and money to minimize sources of conflict, and especially layoffs. Nissan had a reputation for "no layoff once you are full time", even if this was somewhat exaggerated, and often cushioned by a reserve army of temporary workers. As a worker interviewed by Boyer says: "I have an opportunity to do stuff for my kids that I never thought I would son is in college studying to be a biochemist -- that would not have been possible before."
Today the reckonning with overcapacity in auto has finally come. The market is not limitless. The Big 3's share of the remaining market has shrunk dramatically. Folks cannot afford to fill up their driveway with more cars. Now the Senator from Nissan (Corker) makes the case that the United States taxpayer should not subsidize a company that pays its laid off workers 90% of their pay when not working, thus teeing up the Obama Auto Restructuring team to compel the Union to take very significant hits in any survival plan for US auto manufacturing. It does not matter that at the time the UAW negotiated this historic provision in its national agreement, it had limited application, it was intended primarily to discourage runaways to foreign countries, etc. Now, with one in five workers underemployed or unemployed and the rest asked to pay for US auto losses, intentions matter little, and the weakness of syndicalism as a reliable guide to working class policy is revealed.
Syndicalism is elevating unionism to the status of political and social philosophy. The elevation fails when union workers, no matter their best intentions, are not organized to speak for ALL workers. Unions arose in every nation as defenses against the assaults against workers' incomes, conditions of work, and basic rights by corporations. They were never organized to attack or overthrow their employers. But by virtue of being defensive it is rare for the union slogan "an injury to one is an injury to all" to extend very far beyond a particular contractual relationship, except perhaps in song, and impossible for it to challenge the economic management of society. Yet that is what the current restructuring challenge demands: a plan to manage and lead the investment of huge public resources in a manner that helps raise the incomes, conditions and rights of ALL working people.
In many ways the repression of socialist and communist voices in the 50's, including their exclusion from the leadership of most of the labor movement, has now come full circle. There is evidence that, under the pressures of repression, syndicalism in the form of simply tailing labor, or in confining 'radical' social critiques to factional struggles within organized labor, played a corrupting, sectarian role in the US Left as well as within labor. It didn't seem like such an error back then: the labor upsurge culminating in the (almost general) strike of 1946 was incredibly powerful; its achievements under the leadership of unions like the UAW awesome. But now, here we are, in the midst of the greatest crisis of world capitalism since the 1930's, and workers are required to reinvent much that many thought had nearly passed into history: we require a determined political struggle that contends with corporate monopoly power for the leadership of all society and all social institutions. Had socialism and social democracy sunk deeper roots in US soil, had national health care, secure retirement, full retraining and/or national service for all unemployed already become a reality --- then neither the Left, the UAW, nor probably, GM, Chrysler and Ford be in the sad shape we all find ourselves today. Its not that there were no signs along the way: the civil rights movement, the opposition to imperial war were powerful indications that there were majorities for significant change. But the weakness of socialist and social democratic parties made it very difficult to address the economic roots of inequality, true social security, and the imperial-cold-war dangers. Labor, and workers in the main, were confined to ever shrinking bargaining tables -- especially those in the real seats of power.
But that's all going to change now!!!!