Before there was talk of a “transformational presidency,” Barack Obama needed a transformational moment. It came in February at a sprawling General Motors plant in Janesville, Wisconsin, where the Illinois senator–trailed by a press corps skeptical about his ability to appeal to white union members–electrified thousands of autoworkers with a populist promise of infrastructure investment, new trade policies and a future for American manufacturing. His pre-Wisconsin primary vow to defend auto plants offered a lifeline to workers who knew that their industry–battered by years of bad CEO decisions, shortsighted federal energy policies and dysfunctional trade deals–was teetering on the brink of the disaster that unfolded as the year progressed. Days after Obama spoke to them, the autoworkers of Janesville voted in overwhelming numbers to make him the Democratic presidential nominee. It was a critical moment for the candidate, one that he would refer to repeatedly as the campaign progressed toward the November 4 election. Obama and his aides, taking counsel from Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold, had picked the right room in the house of labor in which to make their move.
Seventy-three years earlier, United Auto Workers Federal Labor Union No. 19324 met near the plant where Obama spoke, forming a piece of the quilt of local unions that would become the nation’s most powerful industrial organization. Today Janesville’s UAW members, like their more than 1 million brothers and sisters nationwide, are members of a union that has for decades pushed the labor movement, the Democratic Party and the government to cross lines of racial and regional division in pursuit of social justice, sound yet humane economic principles and international solidarity. It was the UAW that fought for national healthcare and pensions and, when those policy initiatives were blocked by reactionary Congresses, forced corporate America to create a social safety net for workers and retirees that would form the model for union and nonunion workplaces across the country. It was the UAW that fought government- and corporate-sanctioned racial discrimination, integrating Southern factories, supporting the 1963 March on Washington and bailing the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. out of jail in Alabama. It was the UAW that withdrew from the AFL-CIO in the 1960s and ’70s rather than take labor’s big right turn; the UAW that opposed the Vietnam War; set up a research department that studied the cost of bloated military budgets to domestic progress; opposed apartheid in South Africa with such passion that when Nelson Mandela toured the United States after his release from prison, he insisted on celebrating with Dearborn’s UAW Local 600. And it was the UAW that, three decades ago, scored Detroit for failing to design and produce small fuel-efficient vehicles as a response to rising oil prices and mounting foreign competition.
To a far greater extent than the auto companies, parts suppliers and distribution networks it has organized, the UAW has stood on the side of progress–never perfectly, as union dissidents have noted over the years, but invariably with an eye to providing economic security for working families and a future for communities in every region of the country that are threatened by a severe global economic crisis. Remarkably, however, it is the UAW that is under attack. Despite the union’s sweeping, some argue draconian, concessions to keep the auto giants competitive–lowering company costs to such an extent that a vehicle produced in a UAW plant is now competitive with one produced in a nonunion one–a primary argument for delaying a federal bailout of the auto giants is the union. George Will argues on national television and in columns that Congress should “do nothing that will delay bankrupt companies from filing for bankruptcy protection so that improvident labor contracts can be unraveled.” Mitt Romney preaches that it makes economic sense to “let Detroit go bankrupt.” Even the Boston Globe editorializes–under the headline No Concessions? No Bailout–that the UAW should abandon efforts to protect workers and retirees, echoing the themes of the conservative National Legal and Policy Center, which claims, “The union will not allow companies to deploy capital in ways that the market would dictate, such as closing plants and layoffs.”
The cruelty of such statements is writ large in Janesville. The GM plant there, though recently modernized and highly productive, is slated to close in December, leaving the 2,600 workers who cheered Obama in February without jobs. Forcing the auto giants into bankruptcy will hasten the shuttering of more efficient plants and will ravage the networks of parts suppliers, distributors and dealers that extend far from GM, Chrysler and Ford factory floors. That infrastructure supports more than 3 million workers, the vast majority of them non-UAW members, and along with them thousands of Main Streets.
The strategy of bankrupting the Big Three to break the UAW will not merely destabilize the auto industry. It will tear the heart out of a bulwark of industrial unionism and weaken a labor movement that economic royalists have attacked for decades as part of a broad campaign to weaken social and economic gains in every region of the United States. Anyone who think that breaking the UAW will only weaken the circumstances of autoworkers is missing the point of the royalist enterprise, which is to weaken the ability of all American workers to demand fair pay and benefits. As such, almost any bailout would be better than bankruptcy, but the best bailout is one that–perhaps by giving the UAW a piece of the action and placing union representatives on corporate boards, perhaps by giving states a stake–strengthens the hand of the one player in the auto industry that is committed to assuring that federal dollars are spent to defend the interests of workers and retirees while modernizing an industry Obama calls “the backbone of American manufacturing.”
The dithering of tone-deaf CEOs, the Bush administration, Congressional Republicans and some postmodern Democrats could delay a full-scale bailout until Obama takes office. That’s risky for an industry on the ropes, but this risk offers an opportunity. The new president can and should bring us full circle from the dawning days of the conservative era, when Ronald Reagan destroyed a union–the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization–in order to undermine the entire labor movement. Now Barack Obama can use a popular mandate larger than Reagan’s to save a union, the UAW, and to revive the ability of organized labor to improve the conditions of union and nonunion workers in the twenty-first century.