Obituary for Auto in California

Today, February 12, 2010, some comrades and I witnessed something historic. It was the end of the era of automobile production in California. As I walked through the front doors of the union hall of UAW local 2244, sitting right across Fremont Boulevard from the massive New United Motor Manufacturing, Inc. (NUMMI) factory, I saw a portrait of UAW luminary Walter Reuther prominently on the wall and couldn't help but remember how Marty Glaberman said (in the mid-1960s) that Reuther had created "a one-party dictatorship and the totally bureaucratized institution that it is today." On March 31st that institution of class-collaboration will facilitate the closure of the factory and the loss of 4,500 jobs -- completely without a fight and with nothing to offer the workers but empty platitudes by their allies in the Democratic Party.

File:NUMMIplantMissionPeakPanorama 3199.jpg

NUMMI plant with Mission Peak in the background Fremont, California

Also running through my mind were the words of a comrade, Will Barnes, in his insightful writings on U.S. auto capital (available here:, and one word that I kept coming back to was "Antarctica." Meaning the icy-cold fear, anxiety and hopelessness as the rank-and-file workers at NUMMI, and throughout the U.S. but especially in auto, resign themselves to total defeat without even being able to utter the slightest whisper of resistance. And here I'm also reminded of something another comrade said, "The bourgeoisie knew [or still knows] better than anyone exactly what class war is, and what it takes.

Oakland was the site of the last general strike to ever occur in the U.S., from December 2 to 5, 1946. In response Taft-Hartley was passed in spring 1947 and the Cold War and McCarthyism eventually brought to an end what had been a continuous streak of working class militant uprisings (at least sine the early 1930s). The ruling class saw the writing on the wall and wanted to get out of the urban, multiracial working class fortresses that in 1946 had spawned 6 citywide general strikes and 4,985 strikes, with 4.6 million workers participating, and 116 million "man-days" lost to industrial production, each still the all-time record in the U.S.

The East Bay area, centered on Oakland, had been called (which is debatable as it could also have been Los Angeles) "Detroit of the West," with the following motor vehicle factories:

    • Chevrolet
    • Durant Motors
    • Caterpillar (merged with Holt Mfg. in Stockton, before moving to Illinois)
    • Faegol (later became Peterbilt)
    • Fisher Body
    • Willys-Overland
    • Chrysler (in San Leandro)
    • Ford (in Milpitas)
    • International Harvester (in Emeryville)

In order to escape the point of production class struggle since the 1930s, manufacturing sites of had to be relocated. Here's an account of the rationale behind it:

"A vice-president of the American Trust Company told a postwar gathering of executives in San Francisco how labor militancy had influenced decisions by business in respect to the location of new plants, explaining, 'In this period good employee relations have become a number one goal. Labor costs have expanded markedly. Conditions under which employees live, as well as work, vitally influence management-labor relations. Generally, large aggregations of labor in one big plant are more subject to outside disrupting influences, and have less happy relations with management than in smaller [suburban] plants.'" (John Mollenkopf, "The Postwar Politics of Urban Development," in William Tabb and Larry Sawers, eds. Marxism and the Metropolis: New Perspectives in Urban Political Economy. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, p. 131)

For those who are unfamiliar, NUMMI was the old General Motors plant built over former farms and orchards, when the East Oakland Chevrolet plant was closed and moved 30 miles south to the present location in 1962, to the city of Fremont that was only incorporated as a new city in 1956. The next city south is Milpitas which itself was incorporated in 1954 at the behest of Ford Motor Company and local real estate developers so that their factory could be relocated there from the city of Richmond to the north.

As the farmlands were being paved over in the post-World War II period, suburbs grew in this area like wildfire and like everywhere else in the U.S., nearly all the FHA and VA housing loans had built-in racist covenants. It was the white flight destination of the East Bay area, located across from the San Francisco peninsula -- and Milpitas eventually grew to be an immediate suburb of San Jose to the south. Fremont was also the southernmost destination of the BART interurban train system, the initial intent of which was to funnel commuters under the Bay to San Francisco's Financial District.

Segregation originally made it difficult for African American, Latino and other non-white workers to find housing near the auto plant in Milpitas, so in 1955 the UAW was able to collaborate with a developer to create the Sunny Hills housing development 3 miles from the Ford plant. Local real estate interests, developers and racists in the area fought tooth-and-nail to block the development, but with Oakland-based working class civil rights activists, like Brotherhood of Railroad Car Porters leader CL Dellums (uncle of current Oakland mayor Ron Dellums), as allies the UAW prevailed and built an "interracial, cooperative housing development" in the midst of suburbs where realtors pushed the racist myth that non-Caucasian homeowners "depress real estate values."

These were the types of suburbs where homeownership and the "American Dream" were cherished as the birthright of white Americans, as well as being a hotbed of the property tax revolt with Proposition 13 in 1978, that swept the rest of the U.S. throughout the 1980s. Yet there were always pockets that defied housing segregation, such as the neighborhoods of Asians, and Fremont today has the largest population of Afghans in the U.S., as well as large numbers of other South Asians.

GM operated the Fremont plant until 1982, when it closed for the first time. Toyota and GM negotiated a joint-venture and the plant reopened in 1984, producing Chevrolets, Toyota Corollas and pickup trucks, and eventually Pontiac Vibes. GM adopted Japanese "lean" management techniques and became the only Toyota plant in North America that was organized by the UAW.

The event today at the UAW local for NUMMI was attended by nearly every trade union piecard in the Bay Area. It was weird, with all of them in their "colors," like Teamsters in sports team-style jackets and all the other sectoral unions wearing their bright-color t-shirts with their prominently  displayed corporate logos. The union hall was filled with over 400, at least a third of them union bureaucrats or their Democratic Party allies, hacks all the way from the Fremont city council, up to the California State Treasurer Bill Lockyer. And it was the exact same boring, pseudo-militant and banal speeches workers have heard a million times over. Nonsense like "We're here to help you," and "We'll take this message back to ______ (their base, whether locally, Sacramento, or Washington)." Nothing but hot air. Then the union bureaucrats got to the podium and it was just a slightly, but ever so slightly, more militant version of the above, the boilerplate that anyone who's ever been to one of these things hears repeated verbatim each time.

And here's the punchline of their strategy to challenge the plant's closure, from their announcement:

"The UAW is exerting public pressure on Toyota to keep the plant open by demonstrating in front of targeted Toyota dealerships around the state. We are asking friends in the labor, progressive and faith communities to join us in handing out fliers and speaking to the public in front of the following Toyota and Lexus dealerships over the next few days. [...]

We are tracking our turnout to make sure all shifts are evenly staffed. If you or others can volunteer the time to join us at any of the following locations/times please contact me at this email address.  All are welcome."

If you've ever seen this before, it's what you think: a "corporate campaign." More like a spectacular display of passivity and impotence. They're going after privately held Toyota dealer franchises with a boycott to try to guilt trip the corporation that produces the cars to do something, but it was never made clear what it was. I got a sense that it was to up the amount of the severance, which a rank-and-filer there told me was something like $25,000 each worker, depending on years of service and barring any interruptions in production before the shutdown. And I can only imagine that the results will be skewed because who'd be foolish enough to buy a Toyota right now with all the recalls to repair defects (with over 8,000,000 cars being recalled). Also, car sales are down because of the crisis, especially at dealerships near Fremont. It was kind of like having to endure the "bureaucrat/emperor's new clothes" because it's as though they don't even believe in what they're doing themselves. I've been keeping a tally at such events and the results at this one were easy: not once did a speaker at the podium ever use the words "class," "working class," or "class struggle." It's not in their vocabulary and that's the crux of the problem.

At the rally there were very few rank-and-filers who weren't union officials of some sort. We simply couldn't endure another speaker and someone told us that a shift change was occurring. So we crossed the street to the entrance of the auto plant to flier the autoworkers driving to the parking lot with our leaflet calling for a statewide strike on March 4th of students, teachers and hopefully other public sector workers. Our flier also mentioned our solidarity with their struggle against the plant closure, as well as pointing out that workers have occupied their factories in similar situations -- like in Argentina a few years ago, Republic Windows & Doors in Chicago, the 77-day militant occupation at Ssangyong Motors in South Korea, and the 3 Visteon occupations in the British Isles. Even though we saw each worker for only a flash, we got more positive responses than we did from anyone inside the union hall. Some even pulled over and asked for more fliers. I could be imposing my wishful thinking, but it seemed like they had never received anything before tying the class issues together and suggesting that people come together to fight. The union hacks only want to sign them up for shifts at the boycotted dealerships. It seemed like they were eager to engage other working class people, but never had the opportunity. And that feeling is the opposite of everything that goes on in the union hall, where everything is scripted and all actions seem to come out of some lame, predictable and utterly unimaginative bureaucratic playbook. It makes it clear that the purpose of unions is to lose.

And it's here that I come back to the characterization of the United States as "Antarctica." Things have gotten so bad that we can't even see light or anything promising we're submerged so deeply beneath the ice-mass.

This is where we must begin.



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