Biden blasts “right-to-work”

WASHINGTON (PAI) – Business and right wing backers of so-called “right to work” laws really want “the right for them to eliminate your right to have a say in your work,” Vice President Joseph Biden says. And unions are “the only ones keeping those barbarians at the gate,” he adds of the right wing and its business backers.

“We have to organize to fight back against these unrelenting efforts to diminish collective bargaining,” Biden declared. “We have to adapt, but the moment workers lose the ability to be represented” by unions “that’s the moment we all lose out.”

Biden’s forceful comments on Feb. 5 against one of the right’s key causes brought an ovation from the 1,500 delegates to the Auto Workerslegislative conference in D.C. A parade of Democrats spoke during the four-day confab: House Leader Nancy Pelosi, Rep. George Miller, top Democrat on the GOP-run House Education and the Workforce Committee, and Reps. Joe Kennedy III, D-Mass., and Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio.

Delegates applauded Biden’s blast at the right wing and his declaration that if the government and the Auto Workers had not stepped in to restructure GM and Chrysler, the Detroit 3 car companies and their suppliers would have folded, the nation would have lost at least 1 million jobs and the U.S. would still be in a depression.

“It would have been hard to imagine how the country could recover if we lost those 1 million jobs,” Biden said, adding the GOP Bush administration gave that figure.

And Biden saluted autoworkers’ sacrifices to keep the car companies going, including cuts in wages and retiree health care.

Left unsaid: Republicans, led by southern senators, wanted to let the Detroit car companies – and the UAW in the process – die, in favor of foreign “transplants.”

Delegates also welcomed Biden’s prediction the U.S. economy is recovering from the Great Recession and would again lead the world, thanks to worker productivity, more technically oriented education and, by 2032, energy independence.

Nevertheless, “the middle class is shrinking,” Biden warned during his wide-ranging, sometimes-folksy speech. At one point, he held up a chart showing the simultaneous declines since 1968 in union density and share of income to the middle class. Unions are trying to rebuild it, he added, but corporations and their political allies don’t care. “These corporate types talk about rights of business,” Biden exclaimed.

“In 1972,” when Biden was elected to the Senate, “the wage disparity between a CEO and his lowest person on his payroll was 22.2-1. Now it’s 273-1. We’re breaking a basic bargain, and we’re stronger when we grow from the middle out,” he added.

Corporate refusal to compensate workers wasn’t always the case, Biden noted.

He cited Ford Motor Co. founder Henry Ford, who raised workers’ wages to $5 a day in 1917, before the UAW was born. That benefited both workers and the economy, he said. Similar raises, including raising the minimum wage, would help both, he declared.

“Why did he do that? He understood economics. Turnover declined sharply, his profits rose from $30 million to $160 million in two years, and it put money into people’s pockets and they bought his vehicles,” Biden said of Ford. A minimum wage hike and restoring federal benefits for the long-term jobless, as labor and the Obama administration push, would accomplish that same goal of aiding workers and families, he said.

Biden also touted what he called a gathering economic recovery, built on high and increased productivity by workers, growing U.S. energy independence, new hires in U.S. factories – including 380,000 more auto workers industry-wide since 2008 – and what he predicted would be a surge of “insourcing,” returning exported jobs to the U.S.

Left unsaid, however, was data showing that foreign car firms account for a large share of U.S. vehicle sales, though Biden noted the Detroit 3 sold 18 million cars and trucks in the U.S. last year, up five million from the depths of the recession. And the dollar value of U.S. auto exports has doubled since 2008, to $51 billion, Biden said.

That includes fuel-efficient cars, and Biden gently chided UAW for its past opposition to increasing U.S. fuel efficiency standards. The Obama administration, as a condition of federal loan guarantees for GM and Chrysler, to help them pull through the slump, forced the Detroit 3 to agree to double fuel efficiency. The car companies also opposed prior fuel efficiency increases.

“We used to disagree about CAFE [Corporate Average Fuel Economy] standards,” Biden said, using the abbreviation for the fuel rules. “I was right, you were wrong. But we doubled the mileage and now we’re selling them” – fuel-efficient vehicles-“in every market,” here and abroad.

But not Japan, UAW says. In the days before Biden’s speech, delegates lobbied lawmakers about trade in general, especially opposing giving the president fast track trade authority to jam trade treaties without worker rights through Congress with little debate and no changes. And lack of auto trade with Japan is a sore spot. Japanese restrictions and currency manipulation result in 130 Japanese-made cars sold in the U.S. for every U.S. car sold in Japan.

Photo: UAW Facebook page.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C. that he has headed since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jervis bureau chief for the Middletown, NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.