The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

The Union Officials Campaign against Imports to Avoid Leading the Workers in a Fight against the Bosses

Aug 31, 1984

During the past few months, top officials of the U.S. auto and steel worker unions have stepped up their campaign against imports. Hardly a week has gone by without at least one of them making a well-publicized speech or issuing a public statement attacking imports of autos or steel into the U.S.

The union bureaucracies claim that imports are a major cause of unemployment among their members. In some cases, they give the impression that imports are even the most important cause of unemployment. For example, Solidarity, the newspaper of the UAW (United Automobile Workers Union), reported in its April 1983 issue that then UAW President Douglas Fraser testified before a Congressional subcommittee that even with an upturn in sales, auto industry employment “will continue to nosedive unless the U.S. government adopts a policy to assure substantial local production for the domestic market.” Fraser said that since 1979, 1.1 million jobs had been lost, due to the decline in the U.S. auto industry. “By the end of the decade, in the absence of the content law [a proposed import limitation law] U.S. automotive production as a share of the market can be expected to fall to about one half of U.S. auto sales,” he said. The impact on jobs would be catastrophic, Fraser added. It “would eliminate the jobs of more than 200,000 auto workers – and 5½ times that many outside the auto industry,” he testified.

Imports Are Not the Cause of Unemployment

Despite this impression given by auto and steel union officials, imports neither are the main cause of unemployment in the auto and steel industries, nor would import limits guarantee that more auto and steel workers be recalled to their jobs.

Between 1978 and 1983, total U.S. sales of U.S.-made cars dropped from about 10.66 million to 6.86 million per year. In 1978, 735,000 UAW members worked for the major U.S. auto companies, while in 1983, only 565,000 did. During this same period, U.S. sales of imported cars increased slightly from 2.34 million in 1978 to 2.54 million in 1983.

If both U.S. and imported car sales had declined at the same rate during this period, then in 1983, U.S.-made car sales would have been 7.71 million instead of 6.86 million, while imported car sales would have been 1.69 million instead of 2.54 million. At most, only 51,000 additional U.S. auto workers would have been needed to produce the additional U.S.-made cars. 119,000 UAW members therefore would still have lost their jobs during this period.

These figures are only very rough approximations, because they don’t take into account at least two important factors: the increase in the foreign content of U.S.-manufactured autos during the 1978 to 1983 period, and the economies of scale that are possible whenever production is increased. But these two factors would tend to work against one another in relation to the number of jobs available to U.S. auto workers if imports had not increased their share of the U.S. auto market in this period. At any rate, these figures, which come from the UAW itself, serve at least as an illustration that increased imports of cars have not been the major cause of UAW jobs losses, nor would limiting imports put most UAW members back to work.

In the steel industry, the figures are even more striking, and less complicated. Between 1978 and 1983, the total amount of steel consumed in the U.S. fell from about 116.6 million tons to 87 million tons. Imports of steel also dropped from about 21.1 million tons to about 15 million tons. The share of the steel market taken by imported steel actually dropped from about 18.1 per cent to 17.2 per cent. So imports were clearly not the cause of job losses and increased unemployment among steel workers during this period.

Rather than imports, the main causes of increased unemployment in both of these industries are changes that have occurred as a result of the normal functioning of capitalism. There has been a reduction in orders for the products manufactured in these industries caused by the recent economic recession. In 1983, for example, total sales of autos in the U.S., including imports, were only 72 per cent of 1978 sales. 1983 U.S. steel consumption was only about 75 per cent of 1978 consumption.

Increases in the productivity of the workers in these industries have been brought about through increased automation and speed-up. This too, in the absence of a reduction in the length of the work week, has caused layoffs. Recently, Chrysler Chairman Lee Iacocca boasted of his company’s success in reducing the number of Chrysler workers needed to produce Chrysler cars. During the past 3 years, Iacocca said, Chrysler had doubled car output per worker, and by the end of 1985, he predicted that output per worker would increase as much as 60 per cent more. Thus, according to Iacocca, Chrysler car production per worker will have as much as tripled in this 4 to 5 year period!

Once again, these figures are not very accurate, because they do not take into account the parts for Chrysler cars, the manufacture of which has either already been shifted outside of Chrysler itself, or will be shifted outside in the months ahead. They also don’t take into account the amount of overtime work performed in the years in question. But once again, these figures do serve to illustrate that big increases in auto worker productivity are taking place.

It’s not the imports which have taken the jobs of workers in the U.S.; thus it’s not the limiting of imports which can give jobs to the workers. In fact, they would have fewer jobs. If all the union officials’ proposals for limiting imports were adopted and enforced, they would almost certainly lead to an increase in unemployment both here in the U.S., and also overseas, rather than a decrease, as the union officials claim. This is because limitations placed on goods entering this country would almost certainly be answered by limitations being placed on U.S. goods entering other countries. This would trigger a rise of protectionism throughout the world. It is for this reason that the bourgeoisie generally is opposed to such a road today, even though many individual capitalists, whose immediate interests might be served by some limitations on imports, might call for them. The net effect would be a decline in overall world trade and production, with an increase in unemployment in all the affected countries.

The Necessity to Fight the Bosses

Part of the reason why sales of autos and steel have not now recovered to their pre-recession levels is because big cuts in workers’ wages and benefits have lowered the standard of living of the whole working class to the point that many working people can no longer afford to buy new cars and other major consumer products, such as appliances, that contain large amounts of steel. In all economic recessions the bosses attempt to make the workers pay the cost through unemployment and reductions in their standard of living. But the recent recession was deeper, and lasted longer, than any other recession since the end of World War II, and unemployment and wage and benefit cutback went farther. In both auto and steel, for example, the workers took cuts amounting to an average of over 5,000 dollars per year per worker. In most other industries there have also been big cuts, though not necessarily as big as these in auto and steel. The lowering of the standard of living of the working class that this heavy unemployment and these big wage and benefit cuts have brought about is partly responsible for the incomplete recovery in production in the auto and steel industries today.

Unemployment has always been a part of the normal functioning of the capitalist system. The boom and bust cycle of capitalism guarantees that periodically the labor of millions of workers cannot be profitably employed by the captains of industry. So periodically, millions of workers are normally laid off until their labor can once again be profitably employed by the capitalists at a later date. In this way, the capitalists try to shift most of the burden of these periodic recessions onto the shoulders of the working classes, and thus preserve their own wealth at the workers’ expense.

In order to deal with these real causes of unemployment, the workers would need to force the capitalists to shoulder the burden of periodic economic recessions, rather than allowing the bosses to put the burden on them.

By identifying imports as one of the main causes of unemployment, and focusing the workers’ attention on them, the union officials are leading the workers away from an understanding of the need to fight against their own bosses for jobs. In fact, the union officials’ anti-import campaign has reinforced racist and chauvinist attitudes in the U.S. working class that lead many workers here to view workers in other countries as their enemies, and to believe that these are the people they need to fight against to defend their own interests.

It was not surprising to see how the UAW’s anti-import campaign got played out in a Detroit bar back in 1982. Vincent Chin, a U.S. citizen of Chinese extraction, was beaten to death with a baseball bat when he was mistaken by a Chrysler foreman for being Japanese. By the statements he made at the time and since, the Chrysler foreman made it clear that he believed that Japanese people were responsible for the loss of auto industry jobs in this country, and that by attacking Chin, he was merely getting revenge for the unemployment that he and his friends were suffering at the hands of the Japanese people.

Once More the Unions Line up behind the Democrats

Let’s assume, however, that imports were the cause of the unemployment problem, as the union officials claim. The type of anti-import campaign that the union officials have mounted holds no hope for actually limiting imports. To solve this problem, the union bureaucracies occasionally summon the workers to public rallies and symbolic demonstrations (frequently co-sponsored by the bosses the workers need to be fighting against) in support of proposed import limitation laws, and in support of politicians, in most cases Democrats, who have promised to support passage of such laws. In short, union officials tell the workers that the way to stop imports is not by fighting, but by petitioning and voting for bourgeois politicians. In effect, they are saying that the workers can depend on the efforts of their own bosses, and on bourgeois politicians and government officials.

This of course, fits in quite well with the union bureaucracies’ reticence to start any big fight against the bosses and the government for an end to concessions. They say that the most important thing for the workers to do right now to end concessions is to vote Reagan and the Republicans out of office, and vote Mondale and the Democrats in. And they say that to cut back on imports, the same thing is necessary. UAW President Owen Bieber even stated recently that he hoped the UAW could avoid leading a big strike against either GM or Ford this year, because this would put Walter Mondale and the Democrats on the spot, and might endanger their chances for election.

Of course, today, Mondale and the Democrats promise to pass the laws the unions want – in order to get votes in November. But once in office, if elected, they will do what the bourgeoisie wants, and nothing else. It will be as true for imports as for all the other questions that are important for the workers: unemployment, social security, health care, etc. It has always been this way with the electoral promises made by the Democrats.

Even though imports aren’t the main cause of unemployment among the workers, if the workers mobilized to make a real fight against imports, they would have to go up against the same bosses who co-sponsor anti-import rallies with the union officials today. They would also have to go up against the same bourgeois politicians and government officials whom the union bureaucracies tell them to support today.

While these bosses and politicians may some day place sharp government limits on imports of autos and steel, as they already have done on some other products, these limits will be designed to serve the bosses’ own needs and not those of the workers. For the government to ever adopt a foreign trade policy that really served the workers’ interests, the workers would have to impose such a policy on the government through a huge fight, if not by actually destroying the present bourgeois government and replacing it with one that they controlled. But this is not the kind of fight the union bureaucracies propose. On the contrary, their first aim is to prevent the workers from starting such a fight.

For these reasons, the union officials’ present anti-import campaign has no possibility of succeeding in solving the problem of unemployment that the workers face today. In fact, the racist and chauvinistic attitudes that this campaign has encouraged among the workers will have to be cast aside along with the present union bureaucracy, when the workers finally start to fight against the real causes of unemployment, and the real enemies responsible for their joblessness.