Lessons from the Humbling of General Motors by Sam Gindin Of all 20th century industries, it was the auto sector that best captured the sway of capitalism and the rise of American dominance. Theassembly line showed off capitalism’s remarkable productive potential and the automobile flaunted capitalism’s consumerist possibilities.
At mid-century, with Europe and Japan emerging from the devastation of war, 80% of the world’s cars travelled on North America roads. Pursuing the United States model became a common aspiration across the developed capitalist countries.
In the seventy-seven years before the fateful events of 2008, General
Motors (GM) was the largest of the large in the auto industry. As early as
the 1920s, GM had pioneered the multidivisional corporation — a form of
corporate organization that allowed for both the centralization (of
planning) and the decentralization (of execution) that was so crucial to
facilitating the post-war omnipresence of global corporations. As late as
the first year of the 21st century, Fortune ranked GM as the largest (by
revenue) of all global corporations.
The fruits of the assembly line did not, of course, flow automatically to
those tied to it. That only came as workers organized to challenge GM’s
unilateral power. The United Auto Workers (UAW) achieved its breakthrough, and inspired others, through the creative sit-down strikes and by
introducing to this iconic industry the principle of industrial unionism —
a form of unionism representing the unskilled as well as the skilled and
uniting workers across companies. In the growth years after the war, the
proudest achievement of the UAW and then the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW), even to the point of trading off workplace rights, was winning what was essentially a ‘private welfare state’ — a set of gains that brought
workers not just wages, but the security of a range of benefits, of which
health care and pensions were the most significant.
One question posed by the humbling of General Motors in the current crisis
is whether this represented a failure specific to GM and the U.S. auto
industry, or speaks to the decline of U.S. manufacturing more generally and
with it, American economic power. But an ultimately more important issue —
because it is so central to the challenging of U.S. power both at home and
abroad — is the extent to which the most recent losses imposed on the auto unions reflect a momentous defeat of the broader working class in both the U.S. and Canada. This leads to asking what then is to be done if this defeat is not to presage the terminal marginalization of unions as a social force.
In the discussion to follow, one point in particular needs highlighting:
limiting the analysis to specific issues and ignoring the wider context —
that is, the development of global capitalism as a social system — won’t
This is not a matter of ideology but of honestly confronting what we
face. Partial analyses lead to incomplete solutions and incomplete
solutions can in fact make things worse. It is the refusal to think in
larger terms, typically in the name of being ‘realistic,’ which bears a
good deal of the responsibility for why workers were left so vulnerable
when the auto crisis hit and why they subsequently found themselves boxed
into such narrow options.
Escaping that debilitating trap — which involves truly being realistic —
would mean learning to think and act in fresher, bigger, and more radical
ways. This does not, of course, reduce basic workplace, bargaining and
union issues to a secondary status. Rather, it emphasizes that these can
advance working class struggles only if located within a larger strategy
for social change.