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
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
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!”