Autoworker Sheds Light On Industry Situation
The People’s Tribune
interviewed General Baker, a nationally and internationally known labor
leader who spent forty years as an auto worker. He was fired many times
for activities related to his leadership of wildcat strikes. He is
currently retired and lives in Detroit, Michigan.
People’s Tribune: What
are the central modifications to the recently reopened UAW/Ford
General Baker: The
central modifications are that every wage increase and cost of living
benefit has been rescinded. The critical question for retirees was
VEBA, the Voluntary Employment Benefit Association agreement, where the
union takes over the health care costs for retirees. Starting in
January, 2010, one-half of the company’s contributions will be in the
form of stock rather than in cash. This is a real drawback because the
stock could be worthless at any time. It was interesting to see that
the UAW chose Ford Motor Company to set the pattern for the agreements
at Chrysler and GM.
PT: What’s your take on
what is happening with the auto industry today?
GB: Reports on the world
auto industry indicate that the annual worldwide auto sales (of about
70 million cars and trucks) will decline by 15-20% over the next 3-5
years. They calculate that roughly three automakers would have to go
out of business or 50 auto plants would have to shut down worldwide. So
it is a devastating outlook. So far, the announcements of layoffs and
plant closings and reduction of autos for the U.S. side has been about
two million. There’s been about two million in Japan and one million in
Europe. So there’s still another 5 million that has to be reduced in
order to produce ten million less cars globally. Chrysler and GM say
that it will be 2012 or 2013 before there will be any bounce back. It
looks like we have a long road ahead. The situation is fluid. GM’s
auditors just announced that if sales don’t pick up, it may not be
possible for them to continue as an ongoing concern. If the company
goes into bankruptcy, it means a massive shut down of a substantial
part of the manufacturing industry. Workers would lose healthcare,
pensions, and jobs.
PT: What are workers in
the industrial rust belt saying about the times?
GB: Industrial workers so
far are scared to death. They don’t know which way to turn. They still
rely on the leaders that they think can help them recover, and they
have a lot hope that this thing will bounce back. All they know is the
cyclical economic downturns where the industry gets hit, they get laid
off, but they get back again. So it doesn’t really slap them with the
fact that some of these are permanently losses. So their response is
still weak. They are still in a state of fright and shock at the
rapid rate of the shutdowns we’re faced with.
PT: Should the auto
industry be nationalized?
GB: The industry
definitely needs to be nationalized. This is the only way to
rationalize production and keep it at a sustainable level, and at the
same time, help save the autoworkers’ long-term earned benefits.
And, we need a national health care plan that could relieve all workers
who are relying on the corporations to pay for their health care.
Health care would be transferred to the government. This would
eliminate some of the manufacturer’s costs. But that still leaves us
with gaps with pensions which is another issue looming in the
background. Will the current retirees still get their pensions? Will
those who are working get pensions when they retire? The pension
agreements for new autoworkers has already changed. They don’t have
defined benefit pensions.
Our only real hope is for the government to nationalize the industry in
our interests. This is part of the fight for the control of the
government for the people, instead of for the corporations.