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auto workers

UAW autoworkers assembling cars. Before automation, huge industrial
complexes like Ford River Rouge in Dearborn, Michigan once
employed up to 100,000 workers. PHOTO /daymonjhartlehartley.com
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 agreement?

General Baker: The central modifications are that every wage increase and cost of living benefit has been rescinded.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. 





By Mike Evans

The following story is frustrating — but very common. Kalamazoo and cities across the nation are systematically pushing poor and homeless people out of town and into jails. Normal behavior is criminalized and police search and falsely arrest people because of their social class or skin color. But sometimes people and people’s organizations fight back. Sometimes people win!
Christian and Cindy Ridderbos are a homeless couple living at the Gospel Mission in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Their total possessions are stuffed into a 1995 Ford van in need of serious repairs. In order to keep the van and the possessions with them at the Gospel Mission, they must obtain and renew a monthly parking permit. Chris and Cindy were shocked to find their van missing from the Gospel Mission parking lot in late January.
The picture became more clear when friends told them that police were observed searching the van on the evening it disappeared. Two days later, a letter arrived from the State of Michigan declaring that their van had been declared, “abandoned” and that they were required to go to court to recover their property.  They were further shocked to learn that the court filing fees were $105.00.
Michigan People’s Action learned of the problem and assisted the Ridderbos’s with their court case. On March 2, 2009 a hearing was held in 8th District Court in Kalamazoo to determine if the van was indeed abandoned. Testimony at the hearing revealed that the City of Kalamazoo contracts with private towing companies to remove vehicles labeled abandoned by police.
Chris and Cindy presented a valid parking permit in court and challenged the legality of the towing. The towing company demanded that it be paid $646 in towing fees. The City Attorney insisted that the City was not responsible for the abandoned vehicle notice from the State of Michigan. (Under State law, only law enforcement agencies can ask the State to issue abandoned vehicle notices).
After an hour of testimony and deliberation, District Court Judge Pamela Lightvoet ordered the van to be immediately returned to Chris and Cindy!
How many poor people can afford $105 in court costs to recover their property stolen by the state? How many people belong to an organization that is willing to organize and fight back?
Mike Evans is Lead Organizer of Michigan People’s Action.


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