By Mark Brenner and Jane Slaughter
Congress shouldn't respond to the Big Three's mistakes with one of its own, and the biggest mistake of all would be to let Detroit drop dead.
Lawmakers need to take action to save some of the last good working-class jobs in America and to put a tourniquet on the nation's economic pain.
Auto communities across the Midwest are already drowning in a sea of home foreclosures and layoffs. Forty thousand Detroit homeowners are in foreclosure, and the unemployment rate has hit double digits in many auto towns. That suffering will multiply if one of the Big Three collapses.
The only place where pundits, politicians and Big Three executives seem to agree is that autoworkers will have to make do with less or kiss their jobs goodbye.
But imposing more pain on rank-and-file autoworkers can't solve Detroit's problems. Automakers have already wrung billions in concessions out of the United Auto Workers over the last three years, and even if union workers agreed to work for free it would only shave 5 percent off the cost of their cars.
How can we get the auto industry back on its feet without devastating America's heartland? Handing a blank check to the management that got us into this mess will make things worse, not better. But the lame ducks in Washington should provide enough bridge financing to let the automakers survive. T
hen President Obama, together with the new Congress, should use leverage with management to move in a visionary direction.
Detroit, the Arsenal of Democracy, retooled in a matter of weeks when we needed tanks, not cars, in 1941. That same sense of urgency is needed for vehicles that don't run on petroleum. The Big Three's too-little, too-late proposals to raise fuel efficiency and build hybrids will barely make a dent. If American engineers can build satellites that read your license plate from outer space, they can develop an alternative to the gasoline engine.
Mass transit, light rail and high-speed rail are also desperately needed. We could produce this century's answer to the interstate highway system, transforming our nation's industrial capacity in the process.
On top of that, we've got to deal with the Big Three's staggering health care costs. General Motors provides coverage to a million people — workers, retirees and families. The annual price tag is about $5 billion, which, as GM CEO Rick Wagoner is fond of pointing out, is more than GM pays for steel. We could eliminate that onerous cost and benefit the 47 million Americans who are currently uninsured by adopting a Medicare-style program for everyone.
By investing in vehicles that don't run on gas, by overhauling our transportation network and by adopting universal health care we could save Detroit and the economy, securing our nation's environment and retirement security in the process.
We've done it before. Today's turmoil is often likened to that of the 1930s, and it was in the midst of the Depression that the autoworkers union was born. Its founders saw the union as one piece of a daring effort to solve the problems of the time. Now more than ever, we need to recapture that spirit of audacity and inspiration.
Mark Brenner and Jane Slaughter work for Labor Notes, an independent monthly labor magazine based in Detroit. It receives no support from the UAW.
Progressive Media Project