strength in numbers

Yesterday I read that General Motors is eliminating 25,000 American jobs - more than 20% of its blue-collar workforce in the US. The company is supposedly bleeding money, though somehow I doubt the CEO took a pay cut.

I've been looking online for a workers' perspective, either from the UAW, or if they're too spineless, from another labor group. The thought of another 25,000 formerly well-paid Americans trying to get jobs at Wendy's and Wal-Mart is just too depressing.

Almost simultaneously, an email arrived from Purple Ocean, the political wing of the SEIU, leaders in the fight to hold giant retailers like Wal-Mart accountable to something besides their stockholders. They were plugging International Justice Day, a simultaneous demonstration by workers in several cities around the world.

You can support International Justice Day via a virtual march, by adding your name and message to their banner. If you live (in the US) in Miami, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, you can join them in person.

You can also rent Bread and Roses, Ken Loach's excellent film about janitors organizing in Los Angeles. Adrien Brody plays the union organizer, Pilar Padilla plays the Mexican immigrant whose life is changed by their actions. If you don't know Ken Loach, I highly recommend all the films of his I've seen, especially Carla's Song and Hidden Agenda. Hidden Agenda is a terrific paranoid-thriller about British activity in Northern Ireland, with Frances McDormand and Brian Cox, two amazing actors who can seemingly do anything.


barefoot hiker said...

News like this is really disheartening. Wasn't it Henry Ford who said something to the effect that a manufacturer should pay workers enough so that they can purchase the product they're building? You can sure bet the Big Three aren't paying Mexican and other workers that kind of wage. It's an insane form of self-cannibalism. Everyone wants to get ahead by shifting the burden of high wages to the competition. All that's going to wind up doing is leaving manufacturers with no customers. The Third World can't pick up the slack for the very reason that First World corporations keep their labour cheap. The economy's going to grind to a halt, and a when the music stops, a handful of fat asses will plunk on the chairs, and the rest of us will be left begging. There's not much room for democracy in that scenario. But it'll be no one's fault, and everyone's fault, when it happens.

laura k said...

"Wasn't it Henry Ford who said something to the effect that a manufacturer should pay workers enough so that they can purchase the product they're building?"

Yes. And because of radical labor activism that led to the UAW, American auto workers have lived a good life. But their numbers are dwindling, have been for a long, long time.

Today, even Wal-Mart employees can't afford to buy products in their own stores.

Kyle_From_Ottawa said...

True, but General Motors isn't like Wal-Mart.

General Motors is a dying company. I mean, GM seems so desperate to sell cars that they're practically giving them away. The scent of death has been over GM for a while now.

Personally, I think GM has too many brands. For example, all cars made by Toyota are sold as Toyota's in Japan (although in North America they label some of them as Lexus since the Toyota name didn't have enough oomph for the American market).

However, GM sells the same car under several different names in the same market. However, GM sells Pontiacs, Oldsmobiles, Chevy, GMC, Opel, Vauxhall, Holden, Saab, Hummer, and Saturns, and also has majority stakes in Fiat, Suzuki, and Daewoo. The Saturn Ion is a Chevy Cobalt, which is a Vauxhall/Opel/Holden Astra, which is a Pontiac Pursuit. They simply have way too much overhead.

laura k said...

If GM is indeed a dying company - and I have no evidence that they are - their CEO and top executives should take pay cuts, they should produce less. Instead, they try to balance their spreadsheets on the backs of their workers. In that sense, they are exactly like Wal-Mart.

barefoot hiker said...

CEO pay cuts, indubitably. For the squawking you hear from North American business wonks 'in the know' about how unproductive Europe is (you know, health care, shorter hours, long vacations, daycare, trivialities aimed at making life enjoyable), they never seem to address the compensation of executives. European, and especially Japanese, execs are paid nowhere near the level American execs are. What, giving the average guy 5 weeks paid vacation is less productive than giving some guy (whose idea of "productivity" is to lay off 25,000 people to make the other 100,000 work that much harder) betweeen 200 and 500 times that average guy's salary?

The other thing that never seems to get mentioned about "unproductive" Europe is that the EU is running an overall trade surplus, whereas the reputedly vastly more productive USA is spending about half a trillion dollars more a year than it's bringing in. I don't care how productive the US thinks it is... clearly, it ain't productive enough.

Rognar said...

Productivity is simply a measure of the amount of wealth produced as it relates to the costs necessary to produce said wealth. The US has, by that measure, the most productive economy on the planet. Of course, productivity is not the be all and end all. There is a price for all that productivity, in terms of crime and poverty, but it's a price the majority of Americans seem willing to pay.

laura k said...

We are not willing. We are forced to - by ignorance, political impotence and an entrenched oligarchy.

barefoot hiker said...

Actually, by that measure, it's more apt to be China nowadays. The principle advantage the US has is not its productivity; it's the ubiquity of the US dollar. The fact that the greenback is used to denominate so many commodities and transactions, even ones where no US agent is involved, is of tremendous value and advantage to the US. Of supreme importance is the US dollar in the role of petroleum denomination. There's some speculation that one reason the US invaded Iraq was to defend the petrodollar from the advent of the petroeuro. Right now, you need US dollars to buy oil... period. Iraq became the first OPEC member to break ranks and sell oil for euros, in 2000. Three months after they invaded Iraq, the US forced them back into denominating oil in US dollars only. That can't be coincidental.

The fact that people need US dollars to purchase oil, and a number of other strategic commodities, is what enables the US to run the huge trade deficits it does. It's not a matter of productivity as it is consumption... the willingness of the US to be the consumer of last resort, and the willingness of the rest of the world to accommodate them in that role. If either one of those changes, that will reveal the realities of US productivity. Unfortunately, it won't be good news for Canada when it happens.

Kyle_From_Ottawa said...

"If GM is indeed a dying company - and I have no evidence that they are - their CEO and top executives should take pay cuts, they should produce less."

Actually, they'll probably all be fired unless they fix things soon. If the management team can't perform, then they're replaced. Of course, the fired CEO with his millions in the bank obviously isn't in the same situation as the layed off factory worker.

Executive compensation sort of got where it is today because execs in the 80's and 90's where sort of traded around like sports stars, and of course they demanded a big raise to move from Company A to Company B. After the Enron thing, I thought that executive compensation would fall back in line, but it hasn't happened.