FROM FINANCE TO INDUSTRY: THE CRISIS IN AUTO - Part 9

But what seemed adequate during the stock market boom of the 1990s, changed quickly and dramatically when — at the same time that GM was increasingly less able to set aside new monies — the returns on the assets in the pension funds collapsed. Relative to GM's falling workforce and shrinking market, the burden of both healthcare and pensions was all the greater.

For workers, this dependence on their employers for healthcare and pensions — as opposed to receiving them from the state as a right — pushed them toward lobbying governments to support these corporations and, alongside this, vulnerable to government or corporate calls for concessions. Moreover, in trying to gain public support for their dilemma, autoworkers found themselves relatively isolated since most workers didn't get such benefits. Perhaps most significantly, while it once could be assumed that the largest corporations would be around forever and so pension promises were safe, that era — eclipsed by the intensification of competition over the past quarter century — is gone. Even the biggest private companies can no longer guarantee workers their benefits.

Misdiagnosis: Reciprocity, Hollowing Out, and U.S. Declinism

When we consider what kind of intervention might have been proposed to deal with the impact on autoworkers and their communities, certain perspectives on the crisis lead to confused if not harmful strategies. The Canadian Auto Workers, for example, has for some time put emphasis on calling for "trade reciprocity": where foreign-based corporations are accessing North American markets, their home markets should in turn be opened to North American exports. This sounds fair enough, but it misunderstands the nature of globalization. If Asian markets were in fact opened, this would do nothing for Canadian jobs. The auto companies would still be uncompetitive with Asian wages and unwilling to ship from the U.S. and Canada. On the other hand, if it were made easier for companies like GM to invest in Asia and organize their parts flows across that region, this would be beneficial to GM — but would hardly be a solution for workers in North America.

What is of special concern (since the policy itself won't help) is the ideological content of focusing on trade reciprocity as a union strategy. The CAW was a leader in the earlier fight against free trade and still officially opposes it on the grounds that enforcing the property rights of corporations — the freedom to produce, move and sell where they please — undermines the freedom of workers to shape their lives and societies.

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