UAW Strike Points Up Need for Universal Health Care

By Ruth Conniff, September 26, 2007

The mainstream press coverage of the UAW strike in Detroit has been predictably thin. Labor reporters are scarce these days, and the business-section bias of even feature coverage of labor disputes has made our news culture reflexively anti-union and anti-worker. High-wage, high-benefit manufacturing jobs are seen as a "relic." The strike represents an "opportunity" to convert the whole auto industry to a leaner, more profitable entity in which workers are paid as little as possible and pushed as hard as possible.

A good piece in Dollars and Sense magazine provides a different perspective. The piece, an interview with Susan Helper, a professor of regional economic development at Case Western University in Ohio, discusses how American reliance on "just in time" production makes manufacturing jobs mind-numbingly dull. The work is disrespected and arduous, and, worse, the public perception is that it is not worthy of high wages and benefits. Things don't have to be that way, Helper says. Instead, workers could have more discretion and flexibility in their jobs, and more ability to make improvements. Helper is a fan of the 1980s "Total Quality Management" model embraced by Japan--an idea that involved labor-management cooperation to improve quality that some in labor found compromising. But the basic idea is sound. Instead of giving work more dignity and increasing both quality and job satisfaction, the auto industry has been pumping out cars people don't want to buy, and converting to a low-wage, low-benefit and offshore workforce.

Some more creative and humane thinking about the industry is in order.

The other big economic factor involved in the UAW strike is, of course, health care.

In an open letter to the UAW leadership three former UAW International Executive Board members express their worry that the union is going too far, without open debate among its rank-and-file membership, in considering letting the Big Three automakers out of their obligation to cover retirees' health care. Management's proposed Voluntary Employee Beneficiary Association would make the union, not the automakers, the administrators of retiree health care. That represents a major shift. It comes as no surprise that health care is a huge, costly issue for employers and workers alike.

But the interesting point Paul Schrade, Warren Davis, and Jerry Tucker make in their letter is that the union and management have a better option than cutting benefits and shifting the burden onto employees.

"We do not minimize the assault UAW members and all U.S. workers have been under or the challenges our union has faced," Schrade, Davis, and Tucker write. "But we do respectfully submit that the appropriate counter-proposal to the corporate bailout” should include a demand that “the corporations become a moving force on the public policy front for the enactment of the current universal, comprehensive, single-payer healthcare legislation contained in H.R. 676, introduced by Michigan Congressman John Conyers."

Like the SEIU and Wal-Mart, the UAW and GM could push together for single-payer health care as the only real solution to the nation's health care crisis.

"That such a national health care system would serve the auto companies’ self-interest and level the competitive playing field is well documented," the letter-writers add. "The companies extol the economic value of the Canadian system. Our role as a union, in behalf of our members and the community at large, is not to help them escape their responsibility to their past commitments but to help them convert those commitments to the common good. On that proposal, our members are informed, and they will stand behind you."

It is a ringing statement and a timely one. If the major Democratic Presidential candidates are truly supporters of universal health care (despite, as Dennis Kucinich has aptly pointed out, mouthing the words but failing, except in his case, to back single payer) they will rush to get on board with Schrade, Davis, and Tucker.

It's time for some leadership that envisions a healthier, better-off America: not just increasingly stratified economy and an increasingly desperate work force.