Interview with Jerry Tucker, Former UAW Official, on the US Auto Industry in Crisis

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Jerry Tucker: Even though it’s more than tempting to look at the mistakes — and they are gross in many instances — that have been made by the auto management in this country, at this stage of this crisis, it’s hardly the time to just dwell on that fact and not do something, because the effect of the shutdown of all three, or even just one tumbling into bankruptcy, could be devastating.  It just has such a ripple effect throughout the economy.  So many other jobs, other than just those that produce automobiles, are part of this whole industry. . . .  The auto industry is so central.  It’s not the question here of whether all those communities — it’s not just workers, but it’s communities — can handle the scope of this crisis if the shutdowns occur.  The government will have to be a part of this, will have to be a factor, regardless, whether the intervention is at this point, or whether it’s a matter of stepping in when the cities and communities and workers that are affected are devastated by the demise of the industry

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Jerry Tucker: Let’s take up the health care question, because I’ve long been aggrieved by the failure of our union in recent years to stand firm for social insurance and health care, which was really a cornerstone of our position many years ago: that we want single-payer health care.  Now it’s the Conyers bill, but years ago it was the Kennedy bill, and we supported it, and I worked in Washington as a legislative rep for a few years for the UAW, and that was one of the things we pursued in those days.  The auto companies have always resisted that, even though it’s in their self interest to see a system like the Canadian system enacted in this country, which would have saved them, our figures over years have been roughly $1,400 per car, per unit of production, and yet they would resist that from an ideological point of view.  Even at this moment, the insurance question looms about as large as any.  It’s a very large legacy cost, and the UAW is being in some ways faulted for having negotiated good health care, good pensions, for its workers, which I think is a totally perverse idea in this country.  A lot of middle-class America has benefited over the years by the action by the union.  Now, at this point in time, we still don’t see, I’m a little disappointed in the union leadership not making an aggressive push for the conversion of the companies’ interests toward health care as a social insurance, which it should be and which it is in almost all industrialized  countries as well.

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Aimee Allison: You know, I have to ask you, from the union perspective, they wanna protect jobs, right?  That’s basic.  But from the perspective of a free market system, if a company fails, it kinda fails — isn’t that how it works?  What should be the government role?

Jerry Tucker: Well, if we took that view, then, of course, Wall Street wouldn’t exist, as you know it.  At least major banks and so forth would have, many of them would have, crumpled into the Hudson River.  So, I don’t think that there is, and I certainly don’t share the idea of, a free market and unfettered capitalism under those terms.  I think there is a genuine role for the government involved, and I think at this point I do actually agree with the members of congress who are looking at this from the point of view of what the company commitment can be to change the direction.  I actually would take it a little further and say it’s not the management who can actually change the direction; perhaps the government ought to look at the role of ownership of the companies and move it towards the concept of being a production center for new transportation ideas in this country.  We’ve never had transportation policy, and we’ve never had energy policy, both of which we need sorely.

Jerry Tucker, a former Executive Board member of the United Auto Workers union and co-founder of the UAW New Directions Movement, is a co-founder of the Center for Labor Renewal.  This interview was broadcast as part of “The Morning Show” (hosted by Aimee Allison) on KPFA on 21 November 2008.  Read Tucker’s new article “Getting Labor’s National Healthcare Act Together” at the CLR Web site.  The text above is a partial transcript of the interview.