Podcast / Start Making Sense / Oct 12, 2023

The UAW’s Historic Victory—Plus, Elon Musk and American Democracy

On this episode of Start Making Sense, Harold Meyerson analyzes the auto strike, and David Nasaw talks about Tesla and Twitter.

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The UAW’s Historic Victory, plus Elon Musk and American Democracy | Start Making Sense with Jon Wiener
byThe Nation Magazine

The UAW won a historic victory in their strike against GM—an agreement that EV workers will be covered by the union contract. Harold Meyerson explains, and also comments on Israel’s war against Hamas.

Also: Elon Musk has been a leader in the transition to renewable energy, and has made Twitter into a threat to democracy. He has become the face of 21st-century capitalism. David Nasaw has our analysis.

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More than 49,000 members of UAW walked off General Motors factory floors the morning of September 16.

(Matt Rourke / AP Photo)

The UAW won a historic victory in their strike against GM—an agreement that EV workers will be covered by the union contract. Harold Meyerson joins the podcast to comment on that and on Israel’s war against Hamas.

Also on this episode: Elon Musk has been a leader in the transition to renewable energy, while making Twitter into a threat to democracy. He has become the face of 21st-century capitalism. David Nasaw comes on the show with an analysis.

The Nation Podcasts
The Nation Podcasts

Here's where to find podcasts from The Nation. Political talk without the boring parts, featuring the writers, activists and artists who shape the news, from a progressive perspective.

The Abortion Pill Underground, plus Can Dems Hold the Senate? | Start Making Sense
byThe Nation Magazine

Since Roe was overturned, pregnant people seeking abortions in Red states have found help from providers operating at the edge of the law. Amy Littlefield reports.

Also: Democrats in the Senate are going to lose the seat vacated by Joe Manchin in West Virginia — can they hold all the others in November? John Nichols has our analysis, starting with Maryland, where Democrat Angela Alsobrooks will face Republican ‘moderate’ Larry Hogan, the popular anti-Trump former governor.

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Jon Wiener: From The Nation magazine, this is Start Making Sense. I’m Jon Wiener.  Later in the show: Elon Musk –a leader in the transition to renewable energy, and a threat to democracy; David Nasaw has our analysis.  But first, The UAW wins a historic victory in their strike against GM.  Harold Meyerson will comment on that – and on Israel’s war against Hamas. that’s coming up – in a minute.

[BREAK]

Last Friday, the UAW announced that GM had agreed that workers in their new EV battery factories will be covered under the union contract. This is a historic development in our transition to electric vehicles. For comment, we turn to Harold Meyerson. He’s editor-at-large of The American Prospect. Harold, welcome back.

Harold Meyerson: Always good to be here, Jon.

JW: I also want to ask you your thoughts about Israel’s war with Hamas, but first I want to talk about the UAW. Exactly why is this a historic breakthrough for American workers?

HM: Well, to begin with, this is something that the auto companies in general, and GM in particular, were resisting. The theory being that they could get away with using the switch from fossil fuel to electrification of cars to further weaken the union and their workers. Those workers who have been in electrical vehicle plants and in electric battery factories have been paid less and not getting the benefits, et cetera, that UAW members get working for GM, Ford, and Stellantis, which is formerly Chrysler. So this kind of portends the future of this segment of the working class since we are moving from fossil fuel-powered cars to electric-powered cars. Really, the most important long-range demand of the auto worker union has been, ‘We want the same benefits and pay and rights as we transition to electric cars. We are on strike, buddy, in order to make that clear and compel the auto companies to do that,’ and that’s what GM has just agreed to.

JW: I thought the auto companies said it was impossible to include the battery plants in the contract because they were joint ventures. Do we know what made GM change their mind?

HM: Well, I don’t think it was a rethink of that as such. I think the UAW in its rolling strike, it was clear that its next target was going to be GM’s most profitable factory, which is in Arlington, Texas, which makes SUVs and other GM autos that are the most profitable for GM. And GM said, ‘Oh gosh. Well, okay, we are the big fish in these joint ventures, and so we’re just going to say, well, we were wrong. It’s possible we can do that.’ And in fact, that’s what they agreed to.

JW: Of course, I had never heard of GM Arlington, but you’re right, they make full-size SUVs for Chevy, GMC, and Cadillac. Reuters says it’s the most profitable manufacturing facility in the world. Let’s note this is a union plant. I thought low wage non-union plants were the most profitable, but apparently that’s wrong.

HM: Well, you haven’t reefed the profits from selling a large GM SUV.

JW: In your piece for the Prospect, you pointed to some historic parallels to this threat to strike the GM Arlington plant.

HM: Well, yes, really, the founding strike for the UAW and the founding strike really for industrial workers in America was the strike that the UAW waged against General Motors in the winter of 1936, ’37, which was the strike that first led, or compelled I should say, General Motors to recognize the union at all. They did that by sit-down strikes. They barricaded themselves into several GM factories in the largest concentration of GM factories, which then was in Flint, Michigan. But after about a month, they weren’t really getting anywhere and the efforts of the company to dislodge them had not succeeded. But their effort to get a contract had not succeeded either. So they decided to take one factory, as the UAW just did now with the Arlington factory, that was crucial to making the parts that all other GM factories needed.

In order to do that, since they knew that GM had spies throughout their union, they let the word go out that they were going to occupy Chevrolet number nine in Flint, and a pitch battle took place in Chevrolet number nine while management wasn’t looking, and the company’s goons weren’t looking, and the private police weren’t looking. They then see Chevrolet number four, which was the parts factory without which GM could not really operate at all. So this is kind of, in a way, an echo of that. You pick the most strategically important factory. Back in 1937, they had to wage a pitch battle at another factory to be able to take the parts factory. But that worked then, and it appears that the threat to go on strike in Arlington had a real effect now.

JW: So this is all about GM, but the strike is also against Ford and Stellantis, formerly Chrysler. Those two have not agreed to include their EV battery workers in the new contract.

HM: Well, the whole pattern that the UAW has generally used, which they’re not quite doing this time, is to go on strike against one of the big three, get what they want there, stop striking there and keep striking at the other two. This could well play out this time as well. If they get more of what they want from one of the big three, in this case, General Motors, they can say, ‘Okay, GM, let’s sign a contract.’ And if the workers ratify it, then there’s no strike against GM. But guess what? GM is doing fine at that point, they’re back to full production, but Ford and Stellantis are still shut down. So that’s the logic to this.

JW: I checked the geography of GM’s battery plants. Right now, they only have one going. It’s in Lordstown, Ohio, legendary site of class struggle. GM has two more battery plants under construction, one in Lansing, Michigan, where they already assembled the Chevy Camaro, and the other will be in Spring Hill, Tennessee, where there’s also a giant GM assembly plant that assembles the Cadillac SUVs. So these are going to be kind of sister operations to longtime existing GM assembly plants.

HM: That’s right. But if they decide to build more – and given the shift to electric cars, they will – doubtless they’ll decide to do more. This covers those as well.

JW: If you talk about the politics of all this, the transition to electric vehicles has become a political issue in the 2024 election. Joe Biden is spending tens of billions on the transition, and Trump, people will recall, went to Michigan the same day Biden did. Biden became the first president ever to join a picket line at GM’s Willow Run parts distribution warehouse in Ypsilanti, Michigan. Trump spoke at a non-union plant, invited by management, and there he denounced the EV transition as a hoax that is destroying American jobs. He said China is going to manufacture all the EV cars. So this agreement about GM’s EV workers and battery workers coming under the UAW contract, politically this is a big deal.

HM: Yes, it is a big deal because as you said, Trump says, ‘Well, we’re not going to really make any EVs. And if we keep shifting to EV construction, well no one’s going to buy them, and China will dominate it.’ But what the UAW is demonstrating independent of Joe Biden is that they can get good wages and good benefits for workers making electric vehicles. The Trump argument is becoming, ‘Ignore what you’re seeing because what you’re seeing is a rush to construct battery factories and electrical vehicle assembly factories in all parts of the nation really, including the Midwest, the South, and the Southwest.’ Trump is saying, ‘Well, that’s really not going to be here.’ But the more it’s here, it’s going to get a little harder to say it’s not going to be here.

JW: The most surprising thing to me was Josh Hawley, the Republican senator from Missouri who, you will recall, on January 6th raised his fist in solidarity with the crowd of Trump supporters outside the Capitol and then ran from them when the mob invaded the Capitol, Josh Hawley visited the UAW picket line in Wentzville, Missouri, west of St. Louis, which produces Chevy and GMC trucks. He posed for pictures with striking workers carrying UAW signs. He tweeted those pictures with the caption, “These workers deserve better pay, better benefits, and they guarantee their jobs will stay in America.” Josh Hawley is up for reelection in 2024. And in Ohio, Republican Senator JD Vance visited AUW picket line in Toledo where GM assembles Jeeps. He posed for pictures with striking workers carrying UAW signs and tweeted those pictures with the caption, “These workers have a simple message: good wages for an honest day’s work. I’m proud to support them.” This is something I don’t think we’ve ever seen in the United States, Republican senators on UAW picket lines. What’s going on here?

HM: We’ve seen nothing like this in the last 50 years, that’s for sure. What’s happening is that the Republican Party base has become increasingly working class. I mean, they won them over largely on cultural issues, but there they are, and they have needs and demands that aren’t simply cultural. If the Republicans were to banish all of the pronoun reforms, that wouldn’t materially benefit working-class Republicans. And so in areas where there is still a union presence and UAW presence, which is not the South, which is not the Mountain West, but is states like Ohio and Missouri, you’re beginning to get Republicans who have affiliated themselves with a working class that comes over on cultural issues and racial issues, now on economic issues as well. Hawley and Vance are both smart guys. Hawley is up in ’24, Vance later on, but they get that they need those votes, particularly in as much as they’ve lost the votes that are historically Republican among disproportionately college-educated voters. And so I don’t know that this portends a future for the Republican Party generally, but for the Republican Party in areas where there’s still a union presence, it may well.

JW: We have to talk about Tesla. The biggest EV car maker in the United States, of course, is Tesla. Elon Musk, the owner of Tesla, you may have heard, is passionately anti-union. The Tesla plant is in Fremont, California in the East Bay. This has been union country for decades, and I think Shawn Fain and the UAW know about Tesla.

HM: I think they’ve heard of it, and I think one effect of being able to cover workers at battery factories and at EV factories is that they then can go to Fremont. They then can go to Elon Musk’s employees and say, ‘Hey, you guys can get a better deal because we already have a better deal for our members who are making the same kind of electric cars that you guys are making. That’s the role the union on aspect of the focus that the UAW has and has to have on electric vehicles.

JW: And of course, Elon Musk also knows about the UAW. He said recently, “Tesla factories have a great vibe. We encourage playing music and having some fun.” I wonder if you have any comment on how much fun it is to work for Elon Musk?

HM: Well, historically, working for Elon Musk has been something of a high-risk proposition as over half of the former employees of Twitter can attest. There ain’t no job security in Elon Musk land. And assuming that the folks who are making Teslas are normal people, which I think is a safe assumption, the idea of job security is probably one that appeals to them.

JW: Before we let you go, I wonder what your thoughts are about Israel’s war with Hamas. I should say we are taping this interview on Monday afternoon.

HM: Yeah, well, since each day the news just gets grimmer and worse, I’m glad at least you said we’re doing this on Monday. I mean, it’s kind of an apocalyptic state of affairs right now. I will say this: there is one thing that, oddly enough, unites Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and Hamas, which is that none of them are all that keen on having Palestinians vote. Obviously, Israel just doesn’t really recognize the Palestinians in either the West Bank or the Gaza Strip. They have really no effective sovereignty. The Palestinian Authority last held an election in 2005, and Hamas isn’t really keen on elections at all. And so having won there once, again like 17 years ago, I’m not entirely sure that the folks in the Gaza Strip, understanding the severity of the reprisal that what the Hama attacks was sure to produce would really have said, ‘Yeah, okay, go ahead, do this.’

I view the justice of the Palestinian cause and the political entities who are representing it to be two really separate entities. Unfortunately. Barbarism is barbarism, and it can come attached to a cause, which is a very good and necessary cause. I am surprised that some people on the left think, ‘Now is the time to make the Palestinian case.’ I think the Palestinian case has not exactly advanced; quite the contrary for most people, at least most people in the West who are totally supportive of Palestinian autonomy. There still is an inherent revulsion at what we’ve seen in the last several days.

JW: Harold Meyerson: you can read him at The American Prospect. Harold, thanks for talking with us today.

HM: Always good to be here, Jon.

[BREAK]

Jon Wiener: Elon Musk is everywhere. A Google search for him produces 369 million results. How should we understand him? Is he just the latest in a long line of robber barons? For comment, we turn to David Nasaw. He’s an emeritus professor of history at the CUNY Grad Center. His biography of Andrew Carnegie was a bestseller and a New York Times notable book. His most recent book is The Last Million: Europe’s Displaced Persons from World War to Cold War. We talked about it here. He’s written about Elon Musk for The New York Times Op-Ed page, and other work of his has appeared in The Washington Post and The Nation. David Nasaw, welcome back.

David Nasaw: Thank you. Glad to be here.

JW: 369 million Google results for Elon Musk. I went through the top 12. The SEC is suing to compel him to testify on his purchase of Twitter. Tesla is currently under investigation for allegedly lying about the battery ranges of its vehicles. He says his spacecraft could land on Mars in three to four years. Forbes says his net worth grew by $10 billion last Wednesday, reaching 260 billion, even though he paid 44 billion for Twitter, and it’s now worth only nine billion.  Variety reports this week that Warner Brothers wanted to fire his former girlfriend, Amber Heard, from the Aquaman sequel, but Musk had one of his lawyers send the studio a scorched-earth letter threatening to burn the house down if the actress was not brought back for the sequel, so they did. That’s some of this week’s news about Elon Musk. In your New York Times essay on Musk, you describe him as “a jokester, an entertainer, a troll, a provocateur,” and “an Orwellian Big Brother whose smirking visage is inescapable.” Is that the way you described Andrew Carnegie in your award-winning book about him?

DN: No. Elon Musk is sui generis. There’s no way of comparing him to other robber barons. This man is different and, in many way,s more dangerous.

JW: Why do you say he’s more dangerous?

DN: I find Musk more dangerous than Carnegie or Rockefeller or any of the other moguls of the 19th century and early 20th century because he is in control of a medium that allows him to reach more people on a daily basis than any of these guys, that allows him to mold public opinion, to distribute misinformation, and to take advantage of the pullback of the regulatory state that had been weak but in place during Carnegie’s reign and Rockefeller’s reign. There is no progressive pushback and there’s no political pushback to say that there should be some form of federal regulation at least commensurate with the amount of federal dollars that flows his way. 

Let me add to your litany of current Google episodes on what this man is doing. In the last three days, ever since the Hamas incursion and the Israeli reaction, Musk has been a constant and continual driver of misinformation through his X platform, and this has been noted by CNN, by The Washington Post, but what Musk does in these situations is he says, ‘I’m sorry’ and then he goes right back and does it again and again and again and again. 

Let me mention one other danger, which he poses, that earlier moguls did not pose, not even William Randolph Hearst, who I’ve written about, and who controlled a vast number of public information sources from newspapers to magazines to newsreels in the first half of the 20th century. What Musk has done to elevate his importance and the importance of non-regulated sites which regularly offer misinformation, disinformation. He has spent years now going after those sources of information from network television news to The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, and told his millions of followers, ‘don’t believe anything you hear, anything you read. Trust me.’ Regrettably, for reasons I will never understand, they do trust him. He is amplifying his own voice while diminishing those other voices, which makes him more dangerous than we could have earlier imagined.

JW: I want to talk more about Twitter, but first I want to start with Tesla. If you think climate change is the most important issue facing humanity, if you think the transition to renewable energy is the most important action we can take, then let’s face it, Elon Musk’s Tesla is a huge force for good in the world today. He transformed the E-car into something attractive and desirable. He spent a lot of energy on improving batteries, and just this week, Tesla has cut its prices to compete directly with gasoline-powered cars. Musk, by creating and producing Teslas, is doing great good for the future of the world.  Or is that giving him too much credit?

DN: That’s giving him too much credit. I think the analogy here is Amazon. Amazon, in the beginning, Jeff Bezos, in the beginning, we saluted him because he made the buying of books easier and cheaper for all of us.  But at the same time, what he managed to do was to make it more difficult for other online booksellers and for bookstores to continue to thrive. What Musk is doing is he’s not simply lowering the price of his electric cars to compete with gas-driven cars. He’s doing it because he wants a monopoly over electric vehicles. He is a proponent of Tesla. He is not a proponent of electric vehicles in general, because again, like Bezos and Amazon, he’s selling these cars at an enormous loss and union manufacturers cannot meet the prices he set. He wants to drive them out of business as Bezos did the bookstores, and as Bezos then did any number of other sellers of consumer goods.

JW: I want to talk also about Musk and Donald Trump. If you think the greatest threat to American democracy is Donald Trump, Elon Musk is on the right side. In that Walter Isaacson biography published a couple of weeks ago, Musk says he would’ve voted for Joe Biden in the 2020 election–if he had bothered to vote. He characterized Biden as “boring as hell” but described Trump as “kind of nuts and a con man.” He also told Isaacson that Trump was “the world champion of bullshit”. I assume you are with Elon Musk on these points.

DN: Yeah. Musk, he’s crazy for a meritocracy. He knows that Trump is a moron, is a fool, is a man who is incapable of learning anything.

JW: Of course, we have to talk about space travel – his other response to climate change.  But unlike Tesla, I don’t think Musk’s rockets run on wind and solar power.  But it’s because the earth is getting too hot, he says, that we should go live on Mars – because I guess it’s nice there. We’re told by Walter Isaacson that Musk pushes employees at his companies to slash costs and meet brutal deadlines because he needs to pour resources into the moonshot of colonizing space, in Musk’s words, “before civilization crumbles”. “If I don’t make decisions,” Musk explained “we die”. What do you make of his obsession with colonizing nearby planets?

DN: I disagree with Isaacson on one basic principle. Isaacson believes that Musk is mission driven. He’s not out to make a profit, he’s not out to become a gazillionaire, and he wants to save the planet by diminishing the use of fossil fuels. In the event that he fails – or that there’s a nuclear war, which is why he first talked about going to Mars, or the Earth becomes uninhabitable because of climate change – he wants to be able to colonize Mars. He also believes that an interplanetary civilization is going to be much smarter than a civilization living only on one planet. It is totally nuts, totally out of whack. I think that this mission is important to him, but what’s more important to him is making money. He says that he wants to make all this money so that he can go to Mars. No. He’s trying to make all this money because the more money he has, the more powerful he is – and the better he feels about himself.

JW: You’ve emphasized his differences from former media billionaires and robber barons. I have to say, getting his former girlfriend into the sequel of Aquaman is very much like William Randolph Hearst getting his girlfriend Marion Davies into MGM movies. You wrote a book about Hearst. Is Musk the new Hearst?

DN: No. Now I’ve got to defend Hearst. Marion Davies was a terrific comedian. She had extraordinary talent. She was the sweetest woman in the world. Everybody loved her. It becomes clearer and clearer that Amber Heard is toxic, poisonous, dangerous, and not a very good actress, so no. According to Isaacson, and on this, I don’t doubt him, Amber Heard destroyed Musk’s life, sent him into a tailspin. He couldn’t recover. Musk’s brother and everybody around Musk said it had nothing to do with this woman, so why he wants to — I think this stuff with Warner Brothers is another way for him to say, ‘Look, I am the most powerful individual in the world. I’ve got more money than anybody else and I’ve got millions of followers on X. Don’t mess with me. I want to control the world.’ It’s a power play.

JW: In the end here, Elon Musk seems to be weird and unique, but you say it’s a mistake to see him that way. You say Musk is now the face of 21st century capitalism. Why is that?

DN: One, we don’t know where his money comes from. He has been able to escape all regulatory efforts to tax him, to manage him. That frightens me. And he’s the face of 21st century capitalism, I fear – I fear because he is reconverting the capitalist owner into this authoritarian who can do whatever the hell he wants. And why? Because he says he’s a genius. His rationale for ruling his part of the world is that he was born not with a throne, but with genius. In addition, he’s the face of 21st century capitalism because he thrives on publicity, on images. Let me just add, he’s created a tribe of followers, of fanboys who will do anything he asks them to do. Who will keep his Tesla stock high, who will go after the people who criticize him, who will buy crypto when he tells them to, and more.

JW: David Nasaw: he’s a biographer of Andrew Carnegie and William Randolph Hearst and has written about Elon Musk for The New York Times Op-Ed page. David, thank you for talking with us today.

DN: Thank you.

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Jon Wiener

Jon Wiener is a contributing editor of The Nation and co-author (with Mike Davis) of Set the Night on Fire: L.A. in the Sixties.

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