I had not thought about this in several years, but the what-just-happened-here United Autoworkers’ strike versus General Motors Corp. got me to think again about the differences between how things are, and how we want them to be.
It may take many months or even years to know what the effects will be of the tentative agreement that the UAW and GM have reached, and not just for the automaker and the union but for Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler Corp., too. They are expected to reach similar agreements with the UAW soon. Negotiations had been underway for about six weeks, and stretched into a long weekend with all observers expecting a deal of some sort. Rather, the union called a strike, and as everyone wondered what to expect and what it might mean for the future of the domestic industry, a deal emerged after one day on the picket lines.
General Motors agreed to keep 16 plants operating until 2011, and in exchange got the cost-savings it wanted on employees’ and retirees’ health insurance. It’s expected GM will move more than $50 billion of its benefits obligations to a voluntary employee benefits association, or VEBA (a program that functions like a pension fund), in exchange for an initial payment of $30 billion. GM also will offer more buyouts to union members, which will open positions for younger workers at lower wages and benefits.
“We are very, very pleased about the outcome of those discussions,” UAW president Ron Gettelfinger told reporters. But, just a day or so earlier the union president said something more revealing: “The No. 1 issue here is job security,” Gettelfinger said, emphasizing that the UAW was fighting to save jobs, not benefits. They didn’t object to taking over the benefits plans; they were resisting GM’s transformation into something less than the reliably vast organization that defined them, too.
“Security” is the critical word, explaining everything about what the union has been striving to save, pushing to gain, and fighting against. I understand it, and I think everyone will, because it’s what everyone wants and only grudgingly concedes they cannot have.
“Security” may be the defining idea of our age. When I was growing up, when the UAW was thriving, security was not so difficult to identify. “Security” was what was threatened by nuclear weapons, but we knew where that threat resided. We knew other factors might make us vulnerable to that threat — poverty and civil unrest were common concerns — but we managed to resolve any disagreements to avoid them, by returning to the ideals we shared.
Security is so much more difficult to ascertain, now. At airports, in schools, hospitals, and malls; in every financial transaction and personal or public correspondence; in all of our private records, we have to be mindful of security. We’re presented warnings on terrorism and disease, breakdowns in information and infrastructure, and environmental disasters. How could we possibly have enough “security,” and how would we know it if we did?
Today’s insecurity, of course, also involves our livelihoods, as we apprehend competitors anxious to take away the successes and opportunities we’ve built. Every threat seems personal, and the insecurity that once seemed safely far away is now living with us.
Recognizing all this, it’s easier to understand what has kept the automakers and union apart for so long, on issues that seem (to me, anyway) so irrefutable. They’ve wanted to keep GM operating in some way that it never can again. The security they’ve been seeking, that we all seek, is a degree of stability that — if it ever existed — results only from the goals we share and the support we provide to each other.