Jerry White is the presidential candidate of the Socialist Equality Party. The following is the third of four parts of my interview with White, which took place in Detroit on August 30. In this installment, White talks about the American auto industry and the race to the bottom for workers under global capitalism.
You’re saying the inevitable movement of the working class is to the left. Have you, in your campaign and in your work as a journalist, have you found a receptive response to your campaign and to the word “socialism” or in spite of the word “socialism”? And could you start by talking about your journalistic work with the autoworkers last year?
There is a sense, you know, that conditions have become impossible. That the so-called economic recovery has not come down to the conditions of life of ordinary workers at all. Again, in 2009 the Obama administration restructured General Motors and Chrysler, and unlike the bailout of the Wall Street banks, which had no strings attached whatsoever, there was a criterion for the federal bailout of the auto industry, and that was that the wages of the younger generation, the new hirees, would be cut in half, the eight-hour day would be essentially abolished. There would be no overtime after eight hours as there used to be. And that the UAW would be brought in as a total partner in making the United States auto industry more competitive on a global scale. In fact the strategy of both the Obama administration and the UAW is what’s called “in-sourcing.” That is, to convince the multinational corporations not to go to China or Mexico because with the assistance of the UAW you can get sufficient profit extracted from the backs of the American auto worker.
So you have the phenomenon where our younger generation of autoworkers, and maybe their own fathers and mothers worked in the auto industry or still work in the auto industry, and yet their wages are so low they can’t afford to buy the cars that they make. At Jefferson they build these Jeep Cherokees that sell for $35,000 or $40,000. That’s what workers make in an entire year. You know? So there was enormous anger, particularly over the two-tier wage system imposed by the UAW—the UAW, which sits on the board of directors of General Motors, owns the largest block of stock of General Motors. And so the anger had been building up for a substantial period of time, and the World Socialist Web Site has built a very powerful following among autoworkers over a number of years. When the contract expired nearly a year ago on September 14, 2015, our [autoworkers] newsletter had a very big following. And there emerged, as we had anticipated, a struggle of autoworkers to abolish the two-tier wage system, to fight against the impoverished conditions. In fact in that period, there were some five to ten million workers whose contracts were also expiring—postal workers, steel workers, teachers—and the real potential existed for a unified struggle of the working class. But the unions systematically disunited these sections of workers. The unions had actually met with Obama in August 2015 on the eve of the contract expirations in steel and auto, and had pledged to the Obama administration that they would keep back what was called the anticipated “wages push.” Because after all, the economy had supposedly recovered, stock markets had risen, corporate profits for the auto industry were at record highs, and workers were saying, Now we have to recoup our losses. And there were all sorts of worried comments in the newspapers about a wages push.
So the unions, working with the Obama administration, sought to prevent any unified struggle. On the contrary, we fought for the unity of the working class and a common struggle. We fought to encourage workers to establish their own rank and file committees independent of the UAW. Workers began using social media very powerfully to communicate with each other. Our newsletter was circulated and recirculated by thousands of workers who wrote in explaining the conditions of life. And shortly after the contract expiration, the Fiat Chrysler workers were the first workers in thirty-three years to reject a UAW-backed national contract. And that threw the UAW into huge crisis. They began denouncing “outside agitators.” They had lawyers in this city who they employ write red-baiting attacks on the World Socialist Web Site.
So what you began to see was the intersection of the political program and the perspective that we were fighting for and the emergence—the beginning of emergence—of opposition of the working class. And we also fought for, above all, the question of the unity of American, Mexican, Canadian autoworkers. Because the unions are nationally based, and they promote, with the support of Sanders and Trump, the argument that the cause of low wages is not capitalism, is not the ruthless exploitation of the billionaires, but unfair trade deals and Mexicans stealing American jobs. We reject that. And our whole history in the Detroit area has been really based on the fight against the promotion of economic nationalism and for the international unity of the working class.
So in the course of this struggle, you began to see the emergence of the potential of a movement of the working class, and it merging with a leadership which explained, which provided the histoprical background. And the UAW was only able to contain this opposition through intimidation. Telling workers if they continued to vote down the contracts they’d shut your plants, move em to Mexico. Then, as I said, they did everything they could to intimidate the most class-conscious workers. The World Socialist Web Site actually went to one of the—we were banned from all of the UAW press conferences. (Laughs)
I saw you get kicked out of one on video.
At Local 600. Right. Because that was the last local to vote, the Rouge factory. The Ford vote was going down to defeat, and it came down to the last local. Jimmy Settles, the UAW president, held this press conference in order to threaten workers, you know, and they barred us from asking any such questions. Inside the factories they were sending UAW officials on the line to intimidate workers, to say that you’ll lose your jobs if you vote. And then what happened, and workers charge this, is they essentially stuffed the ballot box. They were actually driving through the factory collecting the ballots in a garbage can. And then they managed to pass the contract at the Ford Rouge local and narrowly managed to pass it by 51 to 49 percent nationally.
That’s kind of remarkable because it takes great courage on the part of the workers to vote like that. Because those threats are not idle threats. If those workers are pushing for an increase in wages, they will move.
Well, but the interesting thing is, of course, that these corporations are global corporations. And a CEO like Sergio Marchionne, who just last week visited the Jefferson plant and told the workers that there’s no new product at their factory unless they improve the quality and accept speed-up and so on…
(Laughing) Improve quality and accept the speed-up.
That’s right. They’ve done that. They have a global strategy. So Sergo Marchionne goes to his Fiat workers in Turino, in Italy, and tells those workers if they’re not more globally competitive he’s moving his operations to Detroit. So it’s a never-ending, you know, shifting of production. And the entire policy of the UAW, which we define as “corporatism”–that is, the rejection that the working class has any interests that are apart from or antagonistic to that of the capitalists, the argument that the workers have got to subordinate everything to the competitiveness and profitability of the company—it has produced a total disaster for the working class throughout the world. The pitting of one section of workers against the other. So only an international strategy to unify workers—and by the way, on September 19th about 30,000 workers in Canada face the expiration of their contract under conditions in which GM has threatened to move production, and has moved production, from Oshawa to Lansing of its car model.
So the whole nationalist strategy, which is pursued by unions throughout the globe, is completely bankrupt and reactionary, and it only drives workers in a race to the bottom. And it’s thoroughly connected up with the promotion of economic nationalism and trade warfare. So for example, the steel workers’ union is currently working with the Obama administration to push tariffs against Chinese steel. They are using language of the most filthy anti-Chinese nationalism. It recalls what was promoted in Detroit in the 1970’s when the UAW would tell workers to use sledge hammers on Toyotas and Datsuns, which led to the murder of a Chinese-American autoworker named Vincent Chin. In 1982, I think it was. And “Remember Pearl Harbor,” you know, the bumper stickers they were distributing.
So this filthy nationalism, you know—first of all, it absolutely dovetails with Trump and also Sanders, and it has nothing to do with defending, it hasn’t defended a single job. And it has nothing to do with a genuine struggle to defend jobs. So the only way a real fight against plant closings and layoffs can take place is through the mobilization of the working class, the international unity of the working class, and a socialist program. We reject the so-called right of the capitalists to shut down factories, to slash wages, to carry out mass layoffs. We call for the nationalization of the auto industry under the democratic and public ownership of the working class.
I mean, look at these auto companies. First of all, they produce these defective vehicles because they are concerned with short-term maximizing profits. They are sitting on hoards of cash worth hundreds of billions of dollars. They don’t invest primarily in developing the productive forces, let alone increasing the pay and benefits of workers. The primary use of these vast cash hoards is to buy back stocks in order to drive up the value of the stock, stock buy-backs, and massive dividends. And after all, these companies are primarily controlled by the same massive financial speculators that control the economy as a whole. It has nothing to do with long-term interests, it has to do with the most short-sighted, immediate profit making. And that’s what produced defects at General Motors or the swindle at Volkswagen The same thing is happening—Volkswagen employees are under a relentless attack on their jobs. It’s the workers who are paying for the criminal decision of the top executives and the pressure that comes on those top executives from the financial oligarchy.
Photo source: wsws.org