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Why can’t workers own their jobs?
by Martha Grevatt    Workers World
Entered into the database on Wednesday, April 12th, 2006 @ 15:27:54 MST


Untitled Document
Delphi workers picket CEO Miller. WW photo: Dave Sole

100,000 auto jobs on chopping block

Last year, while touting the “ownership society,” President Bush went on the “Today” show and uttered a classic Bushism: “Ownin’ stuff is good.”

While the “stuff” Bush referred to is out of reach for the working class, most of us would agree that it is good to own some things. It is good if you can own food, clothing, furniture, and some basic appliances. It is good if you can own your home outright and not have to worry about eviction or foreclosure. It is good if you can even own the means to send your kid to college.

For workers, losing a job can mean losing everything you think you own. Shouldn’t workers be able to own their jobs?

This question is not abstract—it is immediate and urgent. Earlier this year General Motors announced plans to eliminate 35,000 hourly positions. Ford followed by saying it would cut 30,000. Thousands more non-unionized salaried workers are being let go already. Just days after asking the bankruptcy courts to scrap its union contracts, Delphi, the former GM parts division, last week stated it would close 21 of 29 plants, laying off 23,000 union workers.

That’s nearly 100,000 jobs! Indirectly, many more jobs will be lost worldwide. Goodyear Tire, for example, announced job cuts and is closing a plant in England. GM just announced that it is eliminating the midnight shift at the Lordstown, Ohio, complex. How will the Lordstown schools continue to pay their teachers? Considering that these auto workers have families, it is not hard to believe that these closings and job losses will affect a million lives.

What if there was a way for workers to block these inhuman cuts — what if workers could exercise their property rights to their jobs and tell the bosses to keep their hands off?

It’s not as far-fetched as it seems. The concept that “a job is a right” has been upheld legally for decades. The Employment Act of 1946 made “maximum production and employment” a national goal, echoed by President Truman, who stated then that “all of the policies of the federal government must be geared to [that] objective.”

Also passed in 1946, the UN Charter on Human Rights declares “everyone has the right to work...and to protection against unemployment.” The Full Employment Act of 1978, while weaker, still upholds “the policy and responsibility of the federal government”to create “conditions which promote useful employment opportunities.”

Why isn’t the government fulfilling its obligation, under U.S. and international law, to go after these corporate scofflaws who threaten a million human beings with economic ruin?

It took a struggle then

The legal argument that jobs are workers’ property goes back to 1937 when Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins stated that right. She was defending the right of sit-down strikers to occupy plants.

Perkins’ actions cannot be understood outside of their historical context.

The famous Flint sit-down strike lasted 44 days and ended Feb. 11, 1937, with tremendous gains for the United Auto Workers. There were 476 additional sit-down actions recorded that year, involving half-a-million workers. In the period leading up to the Flint strike there was a series of GM strikes in 35 cities in 14 states over job security at a time when 50 percent of the GM workforce had been laid off.

These were “moments of dual sovereignty, with unions challenging corporations for control,” according legal scholar James Gray Pope, writing in the Columbia Law Review. It was the sit-down movement, asserts Pope, that prompted a conservative, anti-labor Supreme Court to uphold the Wagner Act, a law that gave workers the right to organize. Pope’s conclusions are striking, given the propensity of most similar experts to isolate legal history from history itself.

Perkins’ declaration that workers have a property right to their jobs, and that they were defending that right by seizing the means of production, should be seen in that context. Perkins was merely putting in legal terms what the exploited workers had already accomplished — by taking over the plants they had temporarily established workers’ control and put the question of ownership up for discussion.

And it will take a struggle now

Currently, the automakers’ contracts with the UAW still include a moratorium on plant closings during the life of the agreement. This came about after a grass-roots mobilization called the Job Is a Right Campaign raised that demand in response to the first big wave of plant closings at GM in 1987. Exactly 50 years after the glorious sit-downs, workers were again mobilized to defend their jobs as property rights.

Layoffs and concessions can and must be fought. Delphi cannot be allowed to use the bankruptcy courts to wipe out the majority of its workforce and dismantle the hard-won gains for those remaining. The struggle has begun, with Soldiers of Solidarity leading work-to-rule actions, workers holding spontaneous on-the-job protests, even the UAW leadership talking strike and some Flint workers talking about repeating history.

As Workers World Party’s founding chairperson Sam Marcy wrote in 1989 during the Eastern Airlines strike, when CEO Frank Lorenzo was using bankruptcy to bust the airline unions, “Cut through the rigmarole with mass action!”