United Steelworkers President Defends Unions: I’m ‘Tired Of Having My Shoes Thrown Up On By Wall Street’

As the debate over whether or not to provide a $25 billion loan to America’s ailing auto industry rages on, conservatives have propagated the myth that the auto workers’ unions are to blame for the Big Three melting down. For instance, Fox News anchor Gregg Jarrett has proclaimed “You retire and you get health care for life? Since when? I mean, no wonder the Big Three are broke.”

Last night, Leo Gerard, president of United Steelworkers International, appeared on the Rachel Maddow Show to dispel this falsehood. “Unions are being set up as if they are the reason that America can’t be that competitive and that business has failed,” Maddow said. “Do you feel that is a political attack on unions as a union leader right now?” Gerard replied, “Of course it’s a phony attack” to blame “an auto worker that makes $57,000 a year.” Watch it:

The idea that unions have brought Detroit to its knees is patently ridiculous. The unions have made multiple concessions in recent years, accepting buyouts and offering to cover the health insurance costs of retirees. The Big Three, meanwhile, created a business model in which they “could make money only by selling big, gas-guzzling S.U.V.’s and trucks.” As Tom Friedman wrote, “instead of focusing on making money by innovating around fuel efficiency, productivity and design, G.M. threw way too much energy into lobbying and maneuvering to protect its gas guzzlers.”

Lost in this whole debate are the obvious economic benefits for workers that are derived from being in a union, including increased wages, better health care, and better pensions. As the Center for Economic and Policy Research noted this week, joining a union can have a profound effect on the wages and benefits that women receive in the workplace, in particular:

On average, unionization raised women’s wages by 11.2 percent – about $2.00 per hour – compared to non-union women with similar characteristics. Among women workers, those in unions were about 19 percentage points more likely to have employer-provided health insurance and about 25 percentage points more likely to have an employer-provided pension.

Fortunately, President-elect Obama has shown that he supports strengthening unions. One of the people being considered to head the Department of Labor — a department that has been “widely criticized for walking away from its regulatory function across a range of issues, including wage and hour law and workplace safety” — is Mary Beth Maxwell, founding executive director of American Rights at Work and an advocate for stronger unions.


Of course, it’s a phony attack. An auto worker that makes $57,000 a year, working some overtime, who produces a good car, who has a half decent pension who’s now had their pension equity whacked by more corruption and calamity on Wall Street, who has some decent healthcare after working 30 or 40 years in the workplace, an employer that’s trying to provide that healthcare because it’s the only country on earth where society doesn’t get its healthcare provided through a universal system.

And all of the sudden, we’re going to blame the workers? It’s not the worker’s fault. In fact, this calamity, as your report said today, people aren’t buying cars. I was in a car lot on Saturday with my wife, I went to buy my daughter a coat just to see what was going on. There was nobody in the car lot buying any cars. You know why? Because they can’t access credit. That’s not the auto workers’ fault, that’s Wall Street’s fault. That’s-those who deregulated the financial sector.

You know, I have this little saying, it’s a good chance to tell it to you. When we deregulated the financial sector, that was the economic equivalent of leaving three-year-olds alone in a candy store. You know what they’re going to do. They’re going to gorge themselves. And when you go and get them, they’re going to throw up on your shoes. I’m just tired of having my shoes thrown up on by Wall Street.


Matthew Yglesias writes:

One long-run alternative to UAW workers accepting lower-and-lower wages and benefits in order to stay competitive with non-union factories would be for the workers to start earning higher wages and more generous benefits. Heck, we could even shift to a labor law regime that makes it feasible to organize workers at those non-union factories. And yet you don’t seem to see this discussed at all in the “liberal media.” Strange.

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