What the Indianapolis 500 Says About America

dario franchittiDario Frachitti won the 2012 Indianapolis 500, driving a car powered by a Honda engine.  A Scottish driver with a Japanese powered car won America’s historic auto race.

There was a time when American made engines, driven by American-born drivers, were competitive at Indianapolis.  The race celebrated and advertised the American auto industry.  The race was founded when the captains of American industry thought that competition and quality were more important than union busting, cutting corners, moving jobs offshore, and leveraging bought-out companies to drain out cash for investors.

There was a time when people had to hand-crank car engines to start them.  Then the American auto industry developed the electric starter.  The American auto industry brought us the automatic transmission.  And even vaunted Mercedes S-Klasse cars use an air-conditioning system licensed from the American Chrysler Corporation that developed it.

Unionized American auto workers built the indestructible Jeeps that carried Allied forces through the hottest deserts, soggiest jungles, and deepest mud of World War II.

But now we are told that union auto workers can’t build a competitive or even a decent car.  We are told that union workers are lazy and shoddy and contentious.  We are told that it is the fault of unions that men like Willard Mitt Romney have to call for the collapse of the American auto industry.

The workers who build the S-Klasse Mercedes that are so popular with the Wall Street crowd are built by union workers.  So are the VW Beetles and Passats that are sold to students and office workers.  The BMW sports sedans, beloved of secretaries and young associates, are built by union workers.

There is a difference between the German auto workers and American auto workers.  The Germans get full health care.  They get more vacation time and guaranteed retirement.  They get education and training while working.  In real dollars, they earn more than American auto workers.

The companies that employ them want them to be prepared for new technologies as those technologies evolve.  The difference between German and American auto companies is twofold.  First, the German companies want their workers to be prepared for future technologies.  Second, the German companies recognize that there will be advances in technology.

This year’s win by a Scottish driver and a Japanese engine is not novel.  Most of the Indy cars have been built in Europe since the late ‘70s.  During the 1950s and 1960s, European and Japanese companies learned to innovate and compete over quality as they rebuilt from the devastation of WW-II.  During the same period, American companies learned that Cold War defense contracts would guarantee them profits without regard to innovation or quality.

The Civil Rights movement of the ‘50s and ‘60s reinforced the labor war lessons that there could be power in organizing and in education.  The same process taught corporations that they needed to fear and oppose their workers.  While European and Japanese companies learned that quality workers were integral to quality products, American corporations decided that workers were an irrelevant and expensive burden while Pentagon handouts guaranteed profits, and that the more educated and innovative the workers, the greater the expense and risk.

By 1980, when Ronnie Reagan was elected to transform America, the Chamber of Commerce and other business groups had adopted all out war on education, working hard to debase public schools in every way they could.  Corporate America wanted nothing to do with an educated workforce.  American companies wanted workers docile, obedient and silent at the same time that European and Japanese companies were encouraging their workers to suggest improvements both in the products and in the manufacturing process.

mercedes assembly lineThe results have been unremarkable.  The postwar economies of Europe and Asia generated steadily increasing product quality and steadily declining production costs, even as the living standards of workers also rose.  The postwar economy in America evolved away from product production, to a system of profits guaranteed by government contracts, without concern for quality or the lives of workers.  Having enjoyed the largesse of the Pentagon from WW-II through Korea, the Cold War, and the Vietnam debacle, corporate leaders learned to use lobbyists to ensure generous contracts from other government departments and from state and local governments as well as the Federal government.

By the mid-80s, the U.S. electronics industry had been replaced by Asian companies.  By the ‘90s, all our home appliances were being made in foreign countries.  By the end of the George W. Bush administration, the corporation party, led by current party’s current presidential nominee, was calling for an end to the U.S. auto industry.

Even our entertainment has been turned over to foreign control.  Sony bought up Columbia Pictures and related properties.  Universal and NBC are now owned by French Vivendi.  And, although U.S. law prohibited control of our TV networks by foreigners, the corporate party pushed through a special law to allow an Australian corporate nazi to buy a network of U.S. TV stations, on the condition that he work to further the corporate plan to debase education and public debate in America.

It would be nice to lay the blame for all this foolishness and mendacity on the corporations and the men like Willard M. Romney who perverted them.  But it would be wrong.

During the ‘50s, while corporations rolled in Pentagon dough, unions were short-sighted.  Unions wanted money NOW!  They were not interested in job training.  They didn’t fight for independent pension or retirement plans for their workers.  And they fought, tooth and nail, against civil rights and the incorporation of minority workers into their ranks.

They were complicit with corporations in focusing on the NOW, with little or no regard for the future.  But the corporate focus on destroying education and pitting workers against each other was forward looking. While unions were convinced that integrating their workforces would be bad, corporations developed strategies of promoting racial strife in the workforce that are now being used to pit workers of different religions against each other.

This work has taken decades to bear fruit.  And it will not be resolved by reelecting President Obama, or even by electing a Democratic Congress and Senate.  Our society has learned such contempt for traditional values that we actually applauded when George W. Bush gave no-bid contracts for military armor to campaign donors whose body and vehicle “armor” wouldn’t stop bullets!

The Tea Party Republican candidate is now beloved because he lies, rather than despite his lies.  The concept that a political leader can lie with impunity has become a badge of success.  The ultimate success of the corporate party’s long campaign against education is that so many people think lying and denying documented facts are badges of honor.

And while the corporate party worked to divide the nation along class and race lines, the electorate now seems most divided along educational lines – the literate versus the illiterate.  The corporate party has made illiteracy something to be proud of.  And unions, originally organized to improve the current and future lives of workers, have been woefully inactive in pushing back against such willful, intentional ignorance.

Tom HallOne lesson to take from union experience relates to pension plans.  Union contracts allowed corporations to defer funding pension liabilities, and to maintain control of the pension plans.  When corporations started to fail, they dissolved workers pensions to guarantee golden parachutes for top executives.  Bankruptcies wiped out workers’ retirements.

Now, the corporate party wants to be given control of workers’ social security.  After what was done to corporate pension plans, unions could do worse than organizing resistance to the looting of Social Security.  This is an issue that most workers could identify with – the corporate party trying to do to Social Security what corporate greed did to their workers’ pensions.

Tom Hall

Posted: Monday, 27 May 2012

Published by the LA Progressive on May 28, 2012
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...
About Tom Hall

Tom Hall is a family lawyer in West Los Angeles. He is from Boston, and was raised in Friends Meeting at Cambridge (Quakers) to think that religion was a progressive force. During the Vietnam War, he organized draft counseling centers and worked with groups training people in techniques for disciplined nonviolent demonstrating. After the war, he became just another yuppie working to make a comfortable life. The Bush administration shocked him back into social concerns. Now he’s working to see that the Obama administration lives up to its progressive promises. Tom can be reached at ProgBlog@aol.com