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Did UAW Build The American Middle-Class?

Posted to on Tuesday, March 15, 2011

INTRO: Several pieces of Legislation at the state capitol would limit bargaining rights for public sector unions. Pensions would be taxed. This has angered unions across the state. They’ve protested at the capitol. And they’ve come in solidarity with Wisconsin and with each other. Many state government workers are members of the United Auto Workers Union. They don’t make cars. But the UAW members who do are supporting the UAW government workers.

Olen Ham is the last surviving man coherent enough to explain why he was involved in the Flint Sit-Down strike of 1937. He lives in Grand Blanc Township.

“I’m a people advocate. I believe in equality for each and every person in the world.”

Ham worked in the Buick foundry in Flint. It was the dirtiest and most dangerous job in the industry. When workers won the right to bargain collectively, the 20 year old Ham doubled his pay from 50 cents to $1 dollar and hour. Ham describes how the UAW-big 3 auto contracts created the middle class. GM built whole subdivisions.

“In Flint they had different subdivisions made by General Motors. But look what that generated in the lumber, glass, steel, doors, everything in the house. Civic park for instance, 2,000 houses General Motors made. Sold them reasonable. But it generated a lot of work. Prosperity came. It generated a tax-base. And here’s where come all the roads and schools and every hospital from Toledo up through Saginaw-Bay City. Our prosperity that was generated by people in the auto industry spread throughout the country.”

By the 1980’s, The UAW was urging the public not to buy Japanese or German cars. Bumper stickers and billboards said “Buy American.” Walmart had once operated that way. But by the mid 1990’s, most of what they sold came from China. I asked Olen Ham why union workers don’t boycott big retailers like Walmart. He said they can’t because their wages have been cut in half.

“Now it’s a matter of survival for people making $14 dollars an hour. They’re not consumers. They’re not buying cars or furniture or refrigerators. The traffic don’t go by these streets even. They’re not buyers now. They’re survivalists.”

This Lansing repair shop specializes in foreign cars. It’s owner was born and raised in Lansing. He asked not to be identified because some customers might be offended. He doesn’t believe the UAW created the middle-class.

“They keep everyone else’s costs up because nobody else is gonna be able to bargain with their employer like they did. This needs to be a work to right state. We need to have to work here. And no they didn’t help everyone else’s standard of living. All they did was made everybody else’s costs higher. If they could afford to pay $3 for a loaf of bread because they were overcompensated for their skill level, the effort they put in it and their education, the rest of us had to pay $3 for that loaf of bread too. They’re over-rated. They simply owned a political party.”

The democratic party, says the repair shop owner.

“They wanted us to buy their cars so they could continue to make 3 times as much as we did. They didn’t really want to answer the true hard questions: why could a guy drive a Toyota Corolla 300,000-400,000 miles and you couldn’t drive a Cavalier that long? They’ve never wanted to talk about that. They just start waving the flag because they’re more patriotic than we are.”

Last week, 800 protesters occupied the Capitol Rotunda and disrupted the senate. Auto workers say that any threat to any union is a threat to them too. As for quality of American cars?
Harry Vanuden is a tool maker at The Mack Avenue Chrysler Engine plant in Detroit.

“The Chinese and Mexicans and all that. Their cars are cheaper because their labor is cheaper. When you make $3 an hour and you sell a car for $25,000 who’s making the money? The company not the people. We got people in America that need jobs. We could make those engines better.”

In the last decade, the Chrysler Engine plant shrunk from 1,500 to 100 workers as hemi engine production went to Mexico. The foreign car shop owner says GM factory workers in Lansing at least had a poor work ethic.

“Of course the bars that were built around the plants never went out of business until the plants did. I don’t think that’s just a coincidence.”

Michael Moore’s movie Roger& Me was inspired by a factory worker in Flint.. His name was Ben Hamper. He wrote a book called Rivethead. Hamper chronicles smoking pot in the parking lot, going to the bar and coming back to work. 94 year old Olen Ham says those were isolated incidents.

“You have individual drunks show up and work anywhere. They were not welcome. They’d be tossed over the fence.”

The UAW has other arguments. Plant managers stressed output, not quality. Engineers and designers failed to compete with the Japanese. What would Abraham Lincoln think? Here’s a quote.

“All that harms labor is treason to America. No line can be drawn
between these two. If any man tells you he loves America yet hates
labor, he is a liar. If any man tells you he trusts America yet fears
labor, he is a fool. There is no America without Labor.”

The words of Abraham Lincoln.

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