Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Entitlements for Americans: Not for the Average Joe

UAW Members Vote Down Ford
Even people who genuinely admire the United States say they are astonished by our sense of exceptionalism—our rock-ribbed belief that we, above all others, deserve to be fulfilled. Arguably, no citizens on earth have a greater sense of entitlement and special privilege than Americans, as evidenced not only by our personal conduct, but by our military adventurism, cultural hegemony, and corporate welfare.
We see it in the collusion between the federal government and the big drug companies. Even though Mother Nature clearly intended otherwise, the Pfizer Corporation—with the blessings of Congress—decided that elderly men have a constitutional right to unlimited erections. Accordingly, even though eyeglasses are NOT covered by Medicare, Viagra is. It’s true. Impaired vision is less important than impaired orgasms. A defeat for the optics industry, a victory for Hugh Hefner.
The logical extension of this arrangement is that someday our streets will be filled with 85-year old men staggering and stumbling about, frail, barely able to see, but sporting huge erections. Not a pretty picture.
Confoundingly, America’s sense of economic entitlement doesn’t extend to working people. It applies to the rich, to the well-connected, to the military-industrial complex, to farmers and ranchers and corporations, to every manner of businessman, consultant, hustler, advertiser, and entrepreneur—but not to the people doing the actual work, putting their shoulders to the wheel, keeping the country going.
Take the recent banking crisis. While the media registered grave concern and disappointment over the Wall Street debacle, they saved their vitriol for working people, churlishly blaming the UAW for Detroit’s woes, implicating Big Labor for its role in the recession by driving away our manufacturing base, and scolding poor people for trying to buy houses they couldn’t afford. The bankers who encouraged and profited from these “sub prime” loans were given a pass.
Further bias was shown in the coverage of the recent (last week) vote by UAW members employed by the Ford Motor Company. The vote was an eye-opener, a shocker. Despite UAW president Ron Gettelfinger’s plea for ratification, the offer was voted down by so many union locals, the UAW executive board, seeing the writing on the wall, was forced to admit defeat even before all the votes were in.
This was a bad contract, and the membership knew it. Among other things, it included a 6-year wage freeze for new hires, radical changes in work rules, and, incredibly, a provision that prohibits the union from going on strike until the year 2016. Stripping a union of its right to strike is like asking a person to walk naked through a blast furnace. You are totally vulnerable and defenseless—exactly the way a corporation prefers its workers.
But instead of dutifully reporting why the rank-and-file was voting this thing down, the media vilified them for being greedy and short-sighted, for not looking at the Big Picture (of course, by “Big Picture” they meant “management’s version”). Had the media been paying attention they would have seen this train wreck coming from a mile away.
Of the Big Three Detroit automakers, Ford is the only one not hemorrhaging red ink, the only one to have avoided bankruptcy. Ford is making money, having reported a $2.3 billion profit for the second quarter alone. But because Chrysler and GM were able to get staggering concessions from their union (as these hapless companies were now broke and facing receivership), Ford wanted to dip its snout in the same trough, hoping the membership would play ball. To their credit, the membership (41,000 UAW members work for Ford) refused to go along.
Because this latest offer would have been the third round of major concessions in the last two years, Ford’s workers simply felt that they had sacrificed enough. The company was healthy; the CEO, Alan Mulally, made $17.7 million last year The workers had had enough. Recommended settlements are rarely voted down; so a revolt like this one (some locals voted 92-percent against it) has to be a shattering blow to union leadership.
Moreover, if there were any lingering doubts as to where the mainstream media stands in regard to the traditional Management vs. Labor struggle—going all the way back to the late 1970s, when Japanese imports first began skewing the market—their continued coverage of the UAW has dispelled them.
Instead of criticizing the hubris and poor decision-making of Big Three executives (going for the short-term money, selling frills and glitter, living like Grosse Point oil sheiks, etc.), the media attacked the union. They focused on the greed of Detroit’s ungrateful assembly line workers, portraying them as overpaid and undeserving factory apes, despite earning salaries that have them clinging to the edge of the middle-class by their fingernails.
If the U.S. does, indeed, have an over-developed sense of entitlement, it certainly doesn’t extend to working men and women. Proof? Despite working harder, longer hours, and more productively (statistics put American output at an all-time record), the middle-class is collapsing, disintegrating, dissolving before our eyes.
Which is why workers need to look to themselves for assistance; there’s no one else to help them. In order to have any hope of prospering, workers need to form collectives and alliances. Given the lay of the land, it’s their only choice.
David Macaray is a Los Angeles playwright, and the author of “It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor” (available on Amazon.com). He can be reached at dmacaray@earthlink.net

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