Saturday, April 11, 2009

Let's Stop Kicking Auto Workers While They're Down

Schadenfreude is perhaps a word with which readers will be familiar, its defined as the malicious enjoyment of another's misfortune, a more apt term might be sour grapes.

In this recession it is auto-workers who are bearing a large part of the pain, not just in job losses and lay-offs, but in people's attitudes and comments. I've read it in the papers and heard it on the streets, unionized auto workers are grossly overpaid for the work they do. If this is their comeuppance, well too bad so sad, that's what a lot of people are saying . Unions have been falling slowly out of favour in much of our society and many people regard organizations such as the CAW and UAW as something of an anachronism. Some argue that the labour movement is no longer needed, that we've evolved to a point where union negotiated contracts do more harm than good.

Let's forget about unions for a moment, let's think in terms of human beings...that is what auto-workers are at the end of the day, human beings. And many of these human beings are losing their jobs, not just their jobs but their sense of identity and their dreams. Dreams that are sometimes grand, but more often simple and plain. Dreams of owning a home free and clear, of taking their families on a decent vacation, of having the financial resources to fund their children's hopes and aspirations. When someone loses a decent paying job, with little prospect of finding another equally remunerative, those dreams can vanish into thin air.

Is it the fault of auto workers that our economy has gone into the toilet? Was it auto workers who created complicated financial instruments that were built on little more than thin air? The men and women working the lines didn't create the hedge funds, they didn't fudge credit scores, they didn't remove government oversight from the high fliers of corporate finance. All they did was go to work and fulfill their obligations to their employers as negotiated in binding collective agreements.

Auto workers lived up to their obligations and responsibilities, unlike so many others whose companies are receiving billions in bailout money...and millions in personal bonuses to boot. If Wall Street's financial masters had shown the same simple dedication and honour as plain old auto-workers...we wouldn't be in this mess. If the executives running firms like GM and Chrysler had been more concerned with bringing the right kinds of cars to market, instead of purchasing private jets, maybe there would be a brighter light shining at the end of the tunnel.

But none of that matters now, its water under the bridge. Because of short sightedness by senior management companies like GM are in serious distress. Because of dubious financial schemes created by Wall Street's best and brightest, the prospects for a surge in demand for cars is at best weak. And so it is that those at the lowest end of the food chain are left holding the bag, while far too many above them continue to live in their ivory towers with marble floors.

Washington and the Federal Reserve have shown incredible resolve in battling this financial crisis, sparing no expense to keep the economy afloat. No amount of money is too large, trillions are being tossed around in direct aid and through other Federal reserve initiatives. The stores of cash come from a seemingly limitless supply. Yet we're being told there's not enough to prop up the auto sector unless the men and women on the line are willing to see their incomes cut by perhaps as much as half.

Maybe there's not much we can do, in many ways the die seems to have been cast. But instead of echoing the sentiments of those who worship at the altars of commerce and greed, I think we should stand up for the little guys in this fight, even if they make more money than many of us. Auto workers might just be the first target, and if nobody stands with might be you who is next.

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