Workers Are Not Your Props

Workers Are Not Your Props

The Democratic presidential field lined up to get their pictures taken with striking GM workers. But what workers really need from the Democratic Party is power, not photo ops.


During the early days of what became the largest prolonged auto strike since 1970, presidential candidates were scrambling to find a General Motors plant where they could get their pictures taken standing in a United Auto Workers picket line. Many of the GM production facilities where workers waged a valiant fight are in key swing states; three of them—Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania—were won by Trump in 2016. But while showing up to picket matters, what workers really need from the Democratic Party is power, not photo ops.

The settlement offer at GM, currently being voted on by union members, is a shameful reminder of how little power workers currently have. Under the proposal, workers gain zero job security and only marginal improvements, making their decision to vote the contract up or down a painful choice. So-called globalization—the fanciful idea that capitalism would spread democracy as it relocated one plant filled with decent unionized jobs after another from the heartland of the United States to other nations with repressive regimes—hasn’t taken democracy anywhere. Instead, it has resulted in weakening our own democratic culture, lining the already bursting pockets of the corporate elite and super-rich, while decimating entire communities.

The GM strike could have been an incredible opportunity for Democrats to drive home a core message: Trump promised workers not one plant would close on his watch, and now that promise is broken. The Democrats essentially ignored the chance. What could they have done to demonstrate to workers that they’re serious about preserving good-paying union jobs? They could have called an emergency summit on how plants threatened with being shut down during Trump’s administration can be kept open—because it’s not just plants that feel the impact; it’s the lives of 18,000 workers, every one of which matters.

The Democrats could have called on the environmental movement and its donors to help line up the financing needed to convert the GM plants slated to close into electric auto plants. (Even if there would be fewer total jobs in that scenario, fewer is better than none; such a move would also show a commitment to retooling existing plants for clean-energy needs.) Key committees in the House could have called for immediate hearings to be held in Michigan, where Democrats could fire off questions about how much money the super-rich got from the tax cuts by quarter and per annum, demanding that those funds get rechanneled directly into the UAW settlement.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi could have passed legislation in the House demanding a bailout by Trump, funded by reversing a percentage of the 2017 tax cuts to guarantee to all 49,000 UAW workers that their employment standards would be maintained as they transitioned to new jobs in clean-energy sectors. Yes, that’s right: guaranteed job security for workers, just as banks were bailed out and guaranteed financial security after the financial crisis. Even if the legislation didn’t pass the Senate, it would have sharpened the debate. Done well, it might even have passed the Senate—or shifted a hell of a lot of votes in 2020.

The Democrats could have taken their entire campaign lists, as Bernie Sanders has done for striking McDonald’s workers and employees of the University of California, and asked every donor or supporter to send money to striking workers to help them hold out longer, or to come join a picket line. They could have demonstrated unity as Democrats by showing up and getting arrested day in and day out, so the nation’s media spotlight never left the workers. They could have rallied the faith community to lead pray-ins for not one more job to be lost.

In short, the Democrats could have actually cared. They could have organized alongside the workers to pull a rabbit out of a hat, goading the ego-driven president into action, and done it in such a way as to reveal who actually cares about the workers, since the decision to destroy 18,000 jobs was announced last November, on the eve of Thanksgiving—GM’s way of showing appreciation to its hardworking employees. Trump could have been shamed on an issue that makes him vulnerable to his own base. Democrats could have gotten serious about repairing some of the damage wrought by ill-thought-out trade deals they are complicit in.

Candidate Obama broke a lot of promises he made to workers in 2007, including when he said, “Understand this: If American workers are being denied their right to organize and collectively bargain, when I’m in the White House, I’ll put on a comfortable pair of shoes myself. I’ll walk on that picket line with you, as president of the United States of America. Because workers deserve to know that someone’s standing in their corner.” A pretty speech, but when Scott Walker was gutting collective-bargaining rights in Wisconsin—and Republican governors were copying Walker’s game plan in Michigan and Ohio—Obama’s picket line shoes stayed in the closet.

In Chicago, Mayor Lori Lightfoot is currently undermining the single biggest organized union base in the Democratic tent. Why not start now, with every Democratic presidential candidate calling her up to help her do the right thing, fast, by supporting the educators on strike in Chicago? The sooner Democrats shift from making workers props in their campaign to making them central actors in rebuilding our infrastructure, retooled for climate and human justice, the sooner we can end the nightmare that is America today.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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