After the recession ends, a new and chilling reality will dawn in America: For thousands of unemployed workers in autos and steel and other basic industrial sectors, the recession isn’t going to end. Those workers will never be called back to the plant. Faced with this prospect, the United Auto Workers began a legislative counteroffensive, which has become the subject of pious clucking among high-minded policymakers. For many years, the UAW was the progressive pillar of organized labor, the one union that usually took the high road.
Now, it seems, the UAW is playing down and dirty with the cherished principle of free trade. The action centers around H.R. 5133, a bill the union drafted last winter that would effectively blunt the influx of Japanese imports by requiring that cars sold in America be substantially made in America. Broadly dismissed at the time as a raw and even dangerous lunge toward protectionism that could rapidly lead to trade wars with our allies, the UAW’s legislation was given little chance for more than embarrassment in Congress. A drastic remedy proposed by a union in desperate circumstances.
The embattled union set about doing what labor lobbyists do best —– prowling congressional offices for support. Reluctant representatives began receiving batches of letters from the rank and file back home. Local union leaders came to call. If a congressman still hesitated, he might hear from the UAW’s political money man, reminding him of past and future campaign contributions.
Week by week, as unemployment spread across the nation, more legislators put aside their private misgivings and signed on. H.R. 5133, as one sponsor put it privately, is “a crappy bill,” one he hopes he will never have to vote for; but he may be stuck now. By the end of June, H.R. 5133 had collected 217 cosponsors in the House, virtually a majority, and sixteen in the Senate. Senator Edward M. Kennedy, long faithful to free trade, signed on early, perhaps mindful that this is an important labor issue that will be remembered by the UAW in the presidential politics of 1984. On the other extreme, Representative Delbert Latta, a retrograde Republican from Bowling Green, Ohio, also became a sponsor. Latta has a lot of auto workers in his district.
If UAW lobbyists can steer past various legislative obstacles, they hope for a floor vote, at least in the House, before the November elections. In which case, respectable objections may wilt in the presence of political imperatives. Representative Fortney H. Stark Jr., a Democrat from Oakland, California, who signed up when a GM plant closed in nearby Fremont, laying off 2,500 workers, neatly described the options: “I have a very simple measure. I walk through my district and count all the Japanese industrial executives. Then I walk through again and count the American auto executives. Then I count the members of the UAW. This way, I have no trouble deciding how to vote.”
Like the other major industrial unions, the UAW is hemorrhaging and fighting for its own survival. And H.R. 5133 is an extreme measure. In broad terms, it would compel foreign and domestic auto makers to operate factories in this country and employ American workers if they wish to sell their cars here. The more cars they sell, the greater the demand for “domestic content” in parts and labor, rising to a requirement of ninety percent for the best-selling models. Obviously, this plays hell with the principle of unfettered international commerce that our government has espoused since World War II.
But H.R. 5133 is also the glimmer of a good idea. Certainly such drastic legislation will not be enacted without substantial softening, but it provides the opening wedge for a fundamental debate that cannot be avoided in the Eighties. Crudely stated, the bill forces the politicians to decide if America will simply stand by and play the good-natured wimp in the name of free trade while a major portion of our industrial base and hundreds of thousands of our best manufacturing jobs are lost to Japan and other countries that do not play fair themselves.
The governing ethos of free trade has dominated both political parties for a generation. Too bad about the auto workers and the steelworkers and the others, the free traders say with a shrug, but on balance, free trade is a good thing for all of us. The wounded labor unions counter with an angry no, maintaining that America is playing the patsy by following old rules that no longer apply to the new realities. While our markets are relatively open to imports and our major multinationals are free to make their own investment decisions, every other major industrial nation plays a different game, controlling and subsidizing capital investments, protecting their basic industrial sectors from foreign dominance in one way or another. If the U.S. doesn’t start to play tough, it is going to lose millions of jobs in this decade, including the best-paying factory jobs that have helped so many working-class families attain middle-class status. In time, as Americans understand the ruinous consequences of this, more and more are going to side with labor. If Democrats or Republicans do not respond, then the next George Wallace will.
Something must be done. The auto industry is in its thirty-ninth month of depression. Thirty major plants from California to New Jersey are closed. Approximately 250,000 auto workers have been laid off, and supplier firms, materials industries and dealerships have let go of twice that number. Right now, of course, the UAW bill provides the Democrats with an opportunity for election-year flimflam at the Republicans’ expense. If Reagan is forced to a veto, so much the better.