A new wind blowing in the country
Shawn Fain is the president of the United Auto Workers. His appearance on CBS‘s “Face the Nation” was jarring compared to the Trump show being broadcast on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” There were no lies, imbecilities, bluster, or demented musings of any type flowing from the leader of the 330,000-strong union now striking Ford, General Motors and Stellantis. Instead, there was straight talk and conviction around a fundamental issue facing American society. It was surprising to see because it is so rare and refreshing. Shawn Fain and his union are taking a stand. The American people will side with them. It is clear that the strike has disoriented the CEOs of the Big Three, like Mary Barra, who Fain obliquely referred to on “Face the Nation.”
Here is what he was reacting to:
For the record, the salaries of the three CEOs are as follows:
Ford’s Jim Farley made nearly $21 million in total compensation in 2022
GM’s Mary Barra made $28.98 million in 2022
Stellantis CEO Carlos Tavares' 2022 pay was 23.46 million euros
What is fair for a 40-year-old foreman with 20 years of experience on the line assembling some of the very best vehicles that have ever been made in the history of automobiles? What’s Barra’s cut? Her position is that she is worth $30 million, and the worker isn’t worth an increase that would raise the median wage to $39 per hour (from $28).
This is what the strike is about. It is about dignity. It is about freedom. It is about the ability to sit back on a Sunday and watch a game without being stressed out over going broke. It also means having the time to volunteer, serve, and make a difference in the practice of citizenship. It’s about being able to afford vacations and raising a family in comfort. It means being able to save, invest, dream and buy a home or send a child to college, or both. It’s about economic growth and sharing in extraordinary and historic levels of profit. Fairness isn’t a threat. It’s a necessity.
The median auto workers are paid $75,000 per year, and the younger workers are paid on the lower half of a tiered system that suffocates their ability to climb the economic ladder, pursue the American dream, and have an opportunity to participate in their communities. These salaries have shrunk by 20 percent against inflation over the last 10 years, while CEO salaries have jumped 40 percent against record profits that soared after massive government bailouts for much of the industry. The question at hand is much broader than what is fair, though that remains at the heart of the matter. Shawn Fain has picked a worthy fight, and just like that, an American leader is born.
Being an American leader is different than being a labor leader, though neither is in conflict. Some labor leaders have the ability to crystallize issues and assert them into the national consciousness through decisive actions and unshakable conviction that the people who create the products that make the profits are not spare parts and don’t deserve “poverty wages.” Such leaders were the wellspring of the American middle class that emerged from the Industrial Revolution. It is that American middle class that has been the source of the nation’s economic power over its history, yet it has to fight for its fair share. The vehicle through which that fight was won was the American Labor Union, which is as elemental to this country’s security as the US Army or Navy. In fact, none could exist without the other.
This tension is a vital part of capitalism and the pendulum that balances the interests of capital and labor has badly swung out of balance over at least a 40-year arc that coincides perfectly with the destruction of the American middle class through much of the country. The results are a politically radicalized society that trusts no institutions that matter. Forty percent of the population has $400 cash on hand in case of an emergency. Sixty percent live pay check to pay check, while the top one percent’s share of the nation’s total wealth increased by $6.5 trillion in 2021.
The next clip must be jarring to Washington, DC, Democrats:
The response is real world. Shawn Fain isn’t interested in rhetoric or hyperbole. He wants to establish a toehold for his members that firmly tethers them to an American middle class under siege and pressure. He has provoked a debate that transcends the banalities of daily political coverage that lingers between celebrating Vivek Ramaswamy, pumping up Mike Pence, and squeezing as much ratings juice from the Trump show as it can get. What Shawn Fain has done is make an assertion that demands a response. His assertion is simple. We don’t pauperize workers in the United States to sustain the excesses of the gilded class which lives apart, beyond and completely separated from the vast majority of the country. Shawn Fain is asking and trying to answer a vital question around how Americans are going to live and work in the 21st century.
The private sector labor union movement must grow in the United States in order to reestablish symmetry between America’s workers and the largest, richest, and most powerful corporations ever witnessed in the history of capitalism. Great inequalities of wealth have been caused by a hundred different factors, but in the end, the stability of society depends on the ability of Americans to prosper and pursue happiness — and they must be able to earn a living. The reductive philosophy of cost-cutting at all costs leads to a cannibalization of human capital at the end of a cycle that discards wealth by beggaring everybody except for a lucky few, who get rich working in politics, media, hedge funds, or hit the lottery and become a public company CEO.
The writers’ strike is grinding on. The actors’ strike is becoming an endurance test as well. The business of Hollywood and the interactions between the guilds and studios is hard to follow because the economic model is so hard to follow. Understanding the core issue though isn’t difficult. It is again about fairness from the economics of a billion-dollar creative product that cannot exist without writers and actors.
There are three ways to win a fight:
Avoid the fight
Bring your opponent to submission (think Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan)
Break your opponent’s will through exhaustion (think about the US in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan)
The Hollywood studios have deployed a siege strategy towards their “partners” that is brutal enough to trigger mass hardship in the coming weeks and months. How long could you go without any work and pay?
Four months on, the strike has no doubt lost any trace of its early fun and picket line camaraderie. It is a merciless slog now. The summer is fading, and soon Halloween decorations will start popping up. It explains the reaction to Drew Barrymore’s decision to resume her show, and her now-deleted Instagram apology. People realize how high the stakes are, and how fraught the moment is. Who will break? Who will blink first?
Most Americans don’t understand the issues of the writers’ and actors’ strikes, let alone comprehend how it directly implicates them and the economic futures of their children. The issue at hand is again reductive. It is about a simple concept between partners, and more broadly, the broader basis for a compact that exists in which all parties can do well. It is about fairness. This concept is elemental in 2023 towards preserving the livelihoods and prosperity of everybody in America who works for anything big and powerful.
The writers’ and actors’ strikes are taking place at the edge of profound and transformative disruptions to the economy at the dawn of the AI and machine learning economy of tomorrow that affects everyone. Think about the extraordinary obtuseness it takes for Washington, DC, politicians, pundits and media to fail and grasp the link between the constant fetishization of wealth in the media as the disdain people feel for the media as a whole. Whatever “the media” may be in the eyes of any given individual it is certainly the case that no one who sits in an anchor chair can really relate to someone making $28 dollar per hour in a company led by someone making $30 million a year, who is friends with their CEO who makes $45 million per year. None of it is real in the real world, except in the gilded world apart, walled off and hidden for the very few across a vast nation of mostly struggling people who serve at the whims of powerful companies and people who control everything.
That is what these strikes are about. They are about establishing or reestablishing a decent standard of living for the people who create billions in profits through their art, imagination, skill, and creativity on a sound set, stage or assembly line. Democratic societies don’t exist at the service of Wall Street analysts who can’t see beyond 90 days, or boardrooms who think the exploitation of shareholders, labor and their country in pursuit of more is acceptable. The people have a right to rein in the excess, and that is what is starting to happen with a resurgent labor movement.
Starbucks tried to quash its workers when they tried to organize, which blew away the idea that Starbucks fast food workers were “partners” with the billionaire CEO who never flew his partners on his plane around the world with him. The labor movement is growling and coming back to life because it is needed. That is how America works. We have a very complex society with deep layerings of institutions that exist beyond the Acela corridor and play a huge role in national life. The UAW is such an organization and so are the writers’ and actors’ guilds. They are making a stand that matters to everyone. People are risking everything now to make it. Their resolve and character is being tested. This is the moment during which people are called to measure up under difficult conditions in support of a cause that is just, right and necessary.
The leaders of these unions should carefully, honestly, directly and calmly explain to the whole of the American people what is on the line. I have no doubt whatsoever that the American people will stand with the unions. There is a new wind blowing in the country. New coalitions and new issues will rise as the Trump era finally ends.
The American political media has subjected the country to a dystopian show based on an absurd premise, which is that everything that happens in America is down river from what happens in American politics. American politics is a toxic waste site in 2023. It is a mix of nihilism, nothingness and vandalism, bundled together into an immovable concrete block impeding progress on everything of consequence in the country. Yet, progress isn’t dependent on politics when our politics is broken.
What Shawn Fain is doing is leading, and the politics of the moment will yield in his direction. The politics will follow the leader.
This is an important moment in America. Take note.
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