Corporate elite settles an old score

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By any logic, advocates of unfettered capitalism should be seeking cover from public wrath these days, as the deregulated capitalism they foisted on us continues to self-destruct, bringing calamity into the lives of millions.

Yet I've heard barely a whisper of mea culpa from members of this corporate crowd.

On the contrary, they seem to see the economic meltdown as an opportunity to finally do in their old foes in the labour movement.

After years of demonizing unions and undermining workers' rights, they're now taking advantage of the unpopularity of the auto bail-outs to try to take away gains that the Canadian Auto Workers spent decades achieving, and that set a standard for the labour movement.

In demanding wage concessions of up to $19 an hour, auto company executives and the Harper government are hoping to deflect public anger for the economic meltdown onto those who assemble cars. (If only GM workers hadn't frittered away their time on the assembly line bundling together those Credit Derivative Swaps.)

In reality, it isn't the auto workers, but the economic meltdown, that has plunged auto industries all over the world into a slump. Since these industries are crucial to national economies, they're being bailed out everywhere. But, as the CAW notes, only in North America are the bailouts accompanied by demands for wage concessions -- even though German and Japanese auto workers earn more than their North American counterparts.

Meanwhile, debate about how to fix the slump is confined within the same old rigid doctrines. Public ownership remains taboo.

Sam Gindin, a former CAW economist who teaches at York University, argues that public ownership may be the answer in the case of the hundreds of auto supply plants that have been shut down in Ontario (and hundreds more facing imminent closure). Gindin insists Canada can't afford to lose this productive capacity, and proposes that closed plants be expropriated and turned over to a new public corporation.

These plants could become part of an ambitious government-directed project to convert us to a green economy -- building the components for expanded public transit systems, redesigned machinery, appliances, electricity grids.

Such ambitious conversions have happened before. Gindin points out that from 1942 to 1944, GM auto plants were overhauled to enable GM to become the world's largest producer of naval aircraft. After the war, they were quickly converted back to auto production.

But now, faced with the worst economic crisis since the Depression, we're led to believe the solution lies not in bold initiatives but in rolling back the gains of the labour movement.

The rest of us shouldn't be acquiescent as the auto workers are vilified for their aspirations to be well paid and secure in retirement. Isn't that what we all want?

The United Auto Workers (U.S. parent of the CAW) helped create the North American middle class. They led the way in the postwar years, winning innovations like annual cost-of-living increases, as they spearheaded the development of a strong union movement that ushered in the broadly shared prosperity of those decades.

The auto workers also provided funding for important social movements of women, students, environmentalists. They even put out a pamphlet back in 1949 arguing for smaller cars, citing the need for fuel efficiency.

No wonder the business elite has long had it out for them -- and now want us to believe the only viable economic model is the one that has recently brought the world economy to its knees.

Linda McQuaig is author of It's the Crude, Dude: War, Big Oil and the Fight for the Planet.

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