Wednesday :: Apr 5, 2006

Thrown To The Wolves

by pessimist

One of the frequent debating topics among my co-workers concerns the current sad state of the American automotive industry.

Some of them feel that if Americans had bought American-made cars, the UAW wouldn't be facing serious cutbacks in their wages and benefits, and the profits would remain in the country.

Others feel that people bought foreign cars because the quality was better - and at a much lower cost, even when American workers made the vehicle. Thus, the little guy still benefitted by having a job - even if the profits ended up adding to the trade imbalance.

I tend to lean toward the latter position myself, but not due to the profit situation. I have another reason.

One thing we used to hear a whole lot (back when America was still the major player in manufactuing consumer goods) was "Be a good shopper."

What this meant was we should closely examine all aspects of the product we were looking into buying so that we would get the best value for our bucks.

But this changed radically as foreign manufacturers were able to produce a quality product - better than we were making domestically - and at a lower cost, even when shipped in from out of the country. Then, we began to see the jingoist attitude emerge, and all that advice about being a 'good value shopper' turned into "Be a Patriotic Shopper - BUY AMERICAN!"

I tried, but I wasn't getting the value I was paying for, and for that I blame the management of the companies who made the inferior-quality products I bought.

For instance, the last vehicle I bought from an American manufacturer began falling apart the day the 12,000-mile warranty expired - almost literally! I kept it together with duct tape and baling wire for six years (and two engines!), until I traded it in (at the lowest possible Blue Book price, I might add!) on a minivan big enough to haul around all the little Pessimists.

For a comparison, the vehicle I now drive I've owned for 12 years - and the only major work I've had to do involved normal wear and tear. I expect to get several more years worth out of it.

This is the sort of quality that Americans have a right to expect from their domestic manufacturers, but don't get. Instead, they are turning to the foreign manufacturers for this quality in larger numbers than ever - with Toyota about to overtake failing GM as the #1 manufacturer in the world.

The management likes to blame the workers for this low-quality, but I still have to blame the managers. Take the situation over at Delta right now (PLEASE!). While the pilots have already given back one-third of their pay in 2004 in addition to another pay cut agreed to last December, the managers still want more cuts - while they prepare Golden Parachutes for themselves! Does this not indicate that American managers are only interested in investing in themselves and not the businesses they are paid to run profitably?

There is only one way these Straussian-trained businessmen know how to generate a profit - take out of the mouths of their workers.

Do You Know The Way To The Bastille?

Delta's mamagement, for example, is well aware that new-hire pilots at other airlines earn something like $15,000 or $20,000 a year - IF they can find a job flying. Assuming full-time work hours, this works out to about $7.50-$10/hr - for a job that requires years of training and experience.

If this is all that American employers are willing to pay for very-skilled labor, what can those who pick McDonald's tomatoes have to look forward to?

Florida tomato pickers converged on McDonald's Corp.'s flagship Chicago restaurant over the weekend to protest poor working conditions and wages they say have stagnated for 30 years. [T]omato pickers continue to draw roughly the same wage they earned in the mid-1970s: between 1.25 cents and 1.4 cents per pound. That amounts to roughly the minimum wage of $5.15 per hour for mostly seasonal work.
Tomato pickers earn about $7,500 a year.

Or about half what Delta is willing to pay pilots to fly their airplanes.

Maybe Delta's management thinks that they can get pilot wannabees to volunteer to fly their planes just for the honor of the job. They might want to ask United and American about how well that worked for them on 9/11.

But I digress.

The farm hands, members of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, want a penny-per-pound pay raise from their employers, growers based in and around Immokalee, Florida. And they want Oak Brook, Illinois-based McDonald's to finance the wage hike by paying more for their tomatoes. The company said it is studying the issue.
McDonald's and other fast-food chains served up $135 billion in sales last year, according to the National Restaurant Association.

I think they can afford it, considering what they charge us to eat their unhealthful products.

On another front, John McCain attempted to sell the (mi$)Admini$tration'$ immigration platform to a union audience and wasn't happy when he got booed. One would think that the Democrats - sadly, the only other option currently available to the abused American worker, would notice that they can reclaim their traditional constituency. One would wish they would, but as they as often just as wealthy (if more socially conscious) as their Republican opponents, they might only be interested in what gains are in it for them.

After all - The Rich Get Richer
Most American households are not, in fact, seeing their economic fortunes improve. GDP is up, but virtually all the growth has gone into corporate profits and the incomes of the highest economic brackets. Wages and incomes for average workers, adjusted for inflation, are down in recent years; the median income for non-elderly households is down 4.8 percent since 2000 (Economic Policy Institute, 8/31/05). The poverty rate is rising, as is the number of people in debt.

With the highest-paid workers targeted for deep cuts in their pay by corporatist managers, this will only get worse - and the working class knows it:

"This is turning from a restructuring of a business into a basic struggle for workers' rights," Robert Betts, president of U.A.W. Local 2151 in Coopersville, Mich., said. "Essentially what they want you to be is a very poorly paid indentured servant." He added: "If we accept too low of a wage, it will affect workers everywhere."

"I took this job thinking this was my future," said Tracey Huffman, 37, staring blankly down at a table at Jamins, a pool hall next to the U.A.W. Local 651 hall on the east side of Flint, Mich. "Now I don't know. It's like starting all over again."

"The offer would be devastating to Delphi workers, their families and their communities," Paul Krell, a UAW spokesman, said.

"I don't have a clue where we're headed after this," said Tracey Huffman, 37, a single mother with two children and only 11 years' seniority. Huffman hired in at age 26, hoping for "a good retirement, a good way to support my children."

The good news is that working-class Americans are noticing the problems, which are now baying at their front doors like hungry wolves. The problem is that they ignored the problems for far too long, hiding their heads as others suffered losses (remember PATCO?) and hoping that they wouldn't suffer a similar fate.

The wolves are still hungry - and there aren't many food sources left for them to feed on.

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