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.

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The new head of the Environmental Protection has a history of suing the agency for trying to do its job.

The reach of this story extends from the lowliest working stiff to the highest court in the land.

By Wendell Berry

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more 
of everything ready made. Be afraid 
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery 
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card 
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something 
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know. 
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord. 
Love the world. Work for nothing. 
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it. 
Denounce the government and embrace 
the flag. Hope to live in that free 
republic for which it stands. 
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man 
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers. 
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.

Say that the leaves are harvested 
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus 
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion—put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come. 
Expect the end of the world. Laugh. 
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts. 
So long as women do not go cheap 
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy 
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep 
of a woman near to giving birth? 
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head 
in her lap. Swear allegiance 
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos 
can predict the motions of your mind, 
lose it. Leave it as a sign 
to mark the false trail, the way 
you didn’t go. Be like the fox 
who makes more tracks than necessary, 
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Wendell Berry is a poet, farmer, and environmentalist in Kentucky. This poem, first published in 1973, is reprinted by permission of the author and appears in his “New Collected Poems” (Counterpoint).

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