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Destroying What the UAW Built

By Harold Meyerson
Wednesday, December 17, 2008

In 1949, a pamphlet was published that argued that the American auto industry should pursue a different direction. Titled "A Small Car Named Desire," the pamphlet suggested that Detroit not put all its bets on bigness, that a substantial share of American consumers would welcome smaller cars that cost less and burned fuel more efficiently.

The pamphlet's author was the research department of the United Auto Workers.

By the standards of the postwar UAW, there was nothing exceptional about "A Small Car Named Desire." In its glory days, under the leadership of Walter Reuther, the UAW was the most farsighted institution -- not just the most farsighted union -- in America. "We are the architects of America's future," Reuther told the delegates at the union's 1947 convention, where his supporters won control of what was already the nation's leading union.

Even before he became UAW president, Reuther and a team of brilliant lieutenants would drive the Big Three's top executives crazy by producing a steady stream of proposals for management. In the immediate aftermath of Pearl Harbor, Reuther, then head of the union's General Motors division, came up with a detailed plan for converting auto plants to defense factories more quickly than the industry's leaders did. At the end of the war, he led a strike at GM with a set of demands that included putting union and public representatives on GM's board.

That proved to be a bridge too far. Instead, by the early 1950s, the UAW had secured a number of contractual innovations -- annual cost-of-living adjustments, for instance -- that set a pattern for the rest of American industry and created the broadly shared prosperity enjoyed by the nation in the 30 years after World War II.

The architects did not stop there. During the Reuther years, the UAW also used its resources to incubate every up-and-coming liberal movement in America. It was the UAW that funded the great 1963 March on Washington and provided the first serious financial backing for César Chávez's fledgling farm workers union. The union took a lively interest in the birth of a student movement in the early '60s, providing its conference center in Port Huron, Mich., to a group called Students for a Democratic Society when the group wanted to draft and debate its manifesto. Later that decade, the union provided resources to help the National Organization for Women get off the ground and helped fund the first Earth Day. And for decades after Reuther's death in a 1970 plane crash, the UAW was among the foremost advocates of national health care -- a policy that, had it been enacted, would have saved the Big Three tens of billions of dollars in health insurance expenses, but which the Big Three themselves were until recently too ideologically hidebound to support.

Narrow? Parochial? The UAW not only built the American middle class but helped engender every movement at the center of American liberalism today -- which is one reason that conservatives have always held the union in particular disdain.

Over the past several weeks, it has become clear that the Republican right hates the UAW so much that it would prefer to plunge the nation into a depression rather than craft a bridge loan that doesn't single out the auto industry's unionized workers for punishment. (As manufacturing consultant Michael Wessel pointed out, no Republican demanded that Big Three executives have their pay permanently reduced to the relatively spartan levels of Japanese auto executives' pay.) Today, setting the terms of that loan has become the final task of the Bush presidency, which puts the auto workers in the unenviable position of depending, if not on the kindness of strangers, then on the impartiality of the most partisan president of modern times.

Republicans complain that labor costs at the Big Three are out of line with those at the non-union transplant factories in the South, factories that Southern governors have subsidized with billions of taxpayer dollars. But the UAW has already agreed to concessions bringing its members' wages to near-Southern levels, and labor costs already comprise less than 10 percent of the cost of a new car. (On Wall Street, employee compensation at the seven largest financial firms in 2007 constituted 60 percent of the firms' expenses, yet reducing overall employee compensation wasn't an issue in the financial bailout.)

In a narrow sense, what the Republicans are proposing would gut the benefits of roughly a million retirees. In a broad sense, they want to destroy the institution that did more than any other to raise American living standards, and they want to do it by using the power of government to lower American living standards -- in the middle of the most severe recession since the 1930s. The auto workers deserve better, and so does the nation they did so much to build.

meyersonh@washpost.com

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