Brother, can you spare a job?

July 07, 1998|By Mark Weisbrot

THE WORLD has changed since the chairman of General Motors Corp. first proclaimed four decades ago that what's good for GM is good for America. For one thing, GM is now the largest private employer in Mexico, where it employs 72,000 people producing parts.

Several thousand of those jobs used to reside in Flint, Mich. Workers there have watched in frustration for 20 years as big chunks of machinery, equipment and their city's future were crated up and sent south like migrating birds, to Matamoros, Mexico.

A bid for jobs

Three weeks ago, Flint auto workers walked off the job to try to keep some of the remaining jobs in the United States. The strike has idled more than 160,000 workers and shut down virtually all of GM's North America plants, at a time when brisk demand is brisk for the company's vehicles.

Comparisons are being made to last year's successful strike by the Teamsters against United Parcel Service, which was hailed as a turning point for organized labor. A powerful company was forced to make significant concessions on wages and job security -- in that case the creation of full-time jobs -- in the face of overwhelming public support for the strikers.

GM is betting that people won't sympathize as much with the autoworkers.

They are more hidden from public view, and the press often portrays them as overpaid remnants of a bygone era.

In reality, the starting wage for Flint auto workers is $13 an hour, which is just about the average wage for all workers in the United States -- an average that includes everyone flipping burgers at McDonald's and Burger King.

But most autoworkers make considerably more than the starting wage, and this offends some people's sense of justice.

GM executives may be surprised to discover that not everyone is outraged that a U.S. autoworker could earn enough to buy a home and support a family. In fact there are still many people alive today who can remember when such things were common occurrences.

It's not as if America or GM, which posted a $1.6 billion profit last quarter, can't afford to employ such workers at home at a decent wage. Although most employees don't have much to show for it, this economy has been growing for eight consecutive years. Our national income now stands at more than $27,000 per person, including children.

Of course it's hard for GM to resist the lure of the Mexican workers in Matamoros, who are paid between $1 and $2 dollars an hour and live in dirt-floor shacks.

When these workers try to organize independent unions, they are confronted with the power of the Mexican government, which does not permit such activity.

The Mexican government is backed by our government, which of course is quite cozy with GM. So what's good for GM isn't all that good for Mexico either.

Many people -- including some of our leading intellectuals and pundits -- write all this off as the inevitable march of history and technology.

In the new global economy, they say, these kinds of reasonably well-paid jobs for American workers have gone the way of the typewriter.

But the changes that have pulled the rug out from under American workers over the past two decades are not the result of blind, inexorable forces.

Boom economy

On the contrary, they are mostly the result of deliberate policy decisions. From the duty-free import arrangements of the '60s and '70s to NAFTA in the '90s, great care has been taken in the rewriting of laws and the "cultivating" of foreign leaders to create this "new global economy," in which corporations such as GM would find it increasingly profitable to move to cheaper labor markets.

Even today, as the Clinton administration seeks to extend NAFTA to Central and South Americas, it has stubbornly refused to incorporate enforceable labor or environmental conditions into the agreement.

GM is spending billions on new auto plants in China, Thailand, Argentina, Poland and Brazil. Meanwhile, U.S. autoworkers are struggling to keep some decent paying jobs from being downsizedand exported out of the country. If that's not worth fighting for, what is?

Mark Weisbrot is research director at the Preamble Center for Public Policy and a research associate of the Economic Policy Institute in Washington.

Pub Date: 7/07/98

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