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Commentary :: Labor
The crisis hits the auto industry
12 Dec 2008
A didactic drama about jobs
The American auto industry is in crisis. Sales figures have plummeted; GM even threatens possible 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 concerned that the rescue measures include consequences for the workers – and indeed not pleasant ones. Where does everybody really know this from – even before any concrete plan is made public? Everyone knows this from their experience of life in capitalism: they are called “dependent employees” because they are dependent on the success of their company. They constantly get to feel this dependence. How many jobs exist in the auto industry, whether new hires are intended, whether overtime or part-time or closures are announced is based completely according to the “course of business.” If it goes badly for the company – like now in the crisis – then it also goes badly for the workers because they lose their jobs and with it their income or (in the most favorable case) have to accept wage losses.

However, to therefore concern oneself about the Big Three and to argue for the rescue of the companies because one is dependent on them is a mistake!

• For starters: the reverse equation – it goes well for the Big Three, it also goes well for its workers – has never happened anyway. That a company voluntarily raises wages during the years of fat black numbers, hires people so that the workers who have to count every penny can concern themselves for the success of the company more comfortably – such news never comes from the company head office. Rather the constant announcement that one must attain the reached state by more effort next year is why wages must remain low in any case 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 expenses are in comparison to the retail price of the cars. As a part of these costs, the wages of the staff enter into this bill. Their cheapness is the basis for low costs and for a high profit. Costs are also low if a very 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 which the workers get to experience.

• Finally: the most beautiful cars and cheapness as well as willingness 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 their production and have rationalized in order to produce more and more cars with less and less employees. If this has happened, the produced cars can not be discontinued, they are of course not given away, but land on the waste dump and the “dear employees” are just sent on leave and then, maybe, to the Jobs Bank. Then the remaining workers may produce with even more effort more cars for even less money.

The auto workers know all this, by the way, only too well. With exactly these procedures, GM in recent years has over and over again coped with its dissatisfaction with its current business and has 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 control over what his workplace looks like tomorrow and whether he still actually “has” one. And secondly everybody finds, actually, that they themselves are always in a financial crisis in their own wallet. The wage is aimed not in the slightest according to what he needs to live, but what the company concedes to him so that it can achieve with his labor as large a profit as possible.

However, in contrast to the other economic subjects, the workers cannot hope that their crisis alarms somebody and demands a rescue program. A GM worker cannot 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

It already shows up during a “normal economic situation” how shitty it is to have to earn a living in a capitalist company: nothing is secure so that one can plan one’s life a little bit. Every projection of the wage is forever in question, comes under review for lowering, so that the company gets its act together with its needs. And every technical achievement that the company obtains does not take place to make the work shorter and so that it will be noticeably more pleasant – what is made easier in difficult physical effort is replaced with repetitiousness and stress.

Now, however, there is a “crisis” – and the Big Three want to cope with it by putting through a new round of concessions from the staff. This takes place to lower labor costs. How naturally this proposal declares that a part of the necessary livelihood of the employees is simply a luxury which can and must be scrapped because the company is in trouble. The staff is treated as what it is: an appendage of the company over which GM freely disposes.

For GM this dependence is a means: the fact that people depend on a job for their life necessities is constantly used by the company to extort them, in order to adjust the relation of wage and yield so that it is worthwhile for their production of profit. In the crisis it wants to carry out one thing above all: as opposed to survival in competition – the workers should submit to every necessary measure that comes at their expense.

Not for the first time it turns out that for the workers:

Their job is the only thing that they “have” – and precisely because of this, anything but their means

One could also learn this from the struggles of recent years in which the employees over and over again accepted tough cutbacks to protect their jobs for the long term (see Wage Reduction Made in the USA: Auto Capital Eliminates Its Social Dead Weight). This cost them a lot of previously achieved wage gains and brought longer working hours, less breaks and tougher performance requirements. The promise given for it is a quite wispy thing: if the balance of the company is not right it is indeed worth (like now) nothing – the next workers’ security- or crisis management program is waiting.

By the way: a state “bailout” for employees in the crisis already exists! It does not even have to be established or demanded: the unemployment office with its service providers anticipates all those who are not so ready to grab the promised jobs from GM ...
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