End of the Road: If the Auto Industry is Dead What does that Mean for Workers?
SO WHO CARES?
Cynics might argue, who cares? The UAW represents fewer than 400,000
auto workers in an industry of more than a million, and the concessions
the companies are clamoring for will simply bring their wages and
benefits closer to what the market will bear for less-skilled workers
anyway. Besides, manufacturing is so 20th century. Aren’t we a
post-industrial economy with a future in services and high-tech jobs?
America can design and engineer stuff and let the rest of the world
build it (think X-Boxes and Ipods).
This mindset misses most of what’s important about the crisis in
auto. Downsizing isn’t accountants shuffling numbers around on a
spreadsheet; the lost jobs are concentrated in specific communities,
such as the already devastated Flint, Michigan made famous by Michael
Moore in his first film, Roger and Me.
Cuts of this magnitude will reverberate throughout the Midwest,
leaving a lasting economic and social hangover. And they will not be
confined to auto, as other companies follow the Big Three’s lead.
High tech companies can’t fill the void. Google, for example, has
just announced plans to open up shop in Michigan. But Google employs
less than 6,000 people worldwide, a drop in the bucket compared to the
70,000 jobs this round of auto restructuring will destroy.
How could the auto industry right itself without devastating workers
and communities? Execs have shown themselves curiously unwilling to
campaign for one measure that would save them billions of dollars per
year: single-payer health insurance.
GM is the largest private purchaser of healthcare in the country,
providing coverage to 1.1 million people. Last year the price tag was
$5.3 billion, which, as CEO Rick Wagoner is fond of pointing out, is
more than GM pays for steel. Half of those covered are retirees, and
the company claims to provide healthcare to 1 percent of America’s