Saturday, December 27, 2008

Detroit's Appomattox

If Southerners act in concert, their purpose must be sinister, or so says Michael Lind in his article last week in Salon, "How to End the South's Economic War on the North." The action of Senators Shelby, Corker, and McConnell to block the bailout of Detroit's Big Three cannot possibly be ascribed to a failure to understand why Toyota, Nissan, and BMW should be penalized for not raising their per-hour labor costs from $46 to Detroit's standard $71 or to add $1,500 in worker health-care costs to the price of every car, as Ford does; it must, instead, be a plot to avenge Jeff Davis and express contempt for the rest of the country. If Lind were not the Whitehead Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation, he should be a novelist or perhaps a psychologist; while analyzing others, he might try to get a clearer insight into his own outrage over the fact that the South will not acquiesce in his contempt for the region or submit to being told what is best for it by enlightened liberals like Lind. I think this is one Whitehead that needs to be squeezed.

I take no pleasure in reading about the wasteland of Flint or the prospect of faithful and competent auto-workers being turned out into the cold because of factors over which they have no control. For that matter, I do think the Big Three must not be allowed to fail altogether, for the ripple effect both of the size of their work force and in their supplier relationships. But their prospective failure is not a plot, from the South or anywhere else, but simply a result of management's own mistakes and of competition from those who do their jobs better. Yes, it is true that the states of the old Confederacy spend less on public services such as education and healthcare than others, and that ought to be rectified; it is also true that the large payrolls made possible by foreign auto-makers in those regions help to improve the quality of life for the workers and their families (see Daniel Gross's article in the December 22 Newsweek on the economic impact of the foreign auto industry on the South). In any case, is there something sacrosanct about living in the Snow Belt? Just as Southern laborers once migrated north for better jobs, perhaps it's time for workers in Michigan to abandon their frozen habitations and do the opposite. If they come in sufficient numbers, they may even vote higher taxes for public services, if they wish.

I understand that the elephant in the room is union vs. non-union labor. Union work rules are sometimes necessary to protect the worker against the caprice of management; I remember reading the reminiscences of an early labor leader in which he recalled that no matter how bad economic conditions became, somehow, the members of the company baseball team were never included in layoffs. Unions happened because corporate management of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were as blind as GM and Chrysler management have been for some time now, and their contributions to equity in the workplace should not be simply dismissed. If union contracts eventually saddled the employer with health-care and pension obligations that can no longer be sustained, they were at least an understanding for worker and employer alike that faithful service over the employee's working life would result in comfort and economic security.

Now it is time to renegotiate all of it, if not the basic principle of mutual obligation, then the details of how such a principle can be honored in today's economy. The solution lies neither in abandoning the Detroit worker to freeze and starve nor in wild-eyed calls from the likes of Lind for a "New Reconstruction" in which the South eventually becomes as bankrupt and hamstrung as the North, but in an honest understanding between management and labor about building cars that work, that do not despoil the environment, and that the worker can afford, along with reasonable health and pension benefits. Instead of punishing Dixie for its success, others would do well to emulate it.

© Michael Huggins, 2008. All rights reserved.

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