An explosion in the making

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Ron Wallin, a 32-year worker for Alaska Airlines, was one of 472 baggage handlers struck by a harsh truth this past May, when they were told on a Friday not to come back on Monday. Alaska had always boasted that its employees were its greatest resource, Wallin told The News Tribune of Tacoma, Washington; now those employees were being sacrificed to cut costs. Their jobs had been sold “outsourced” to a subcontractor who pays its non-union workers a lot less money.

The Alaska baggage handlers’ predicament is not an aberration. Sudden layoffs, drastic wage cuts, and pension disappearances are becoming the norm. Disposability is, after all, built into the system.

Capitalism’s home truths. The purpose of big business is to make big profits. General Motors, the world’s largest automaker, claims it failed to do this during the first quarter of 2005. To cut costs, GM announced in early June that it was eliminating 25,000 blue-collar union jobs by 2008. Coming soon are sharp reductions in its healthcare and pension costs.

GM says these changes will save $2.5 billion a year. The production work of U.S. plants to be closed will move to countries like Brazil and South Korea where workers are paid far less.

The Christian Science Monitor casually explained the business logic of this course of action. “An increasing part of production costs in America comes from the price of promises [healthcare and retiree pensions]. The cost of these promises is becoming a drag.”

Alaska Airlines reported that it lost $80.5 million during the first quarter of 2005 and is trimming expenses by $340 million. After a year and a half of contract negotiations with Seattle-Tacoma airport baggage handlers, the company proposed a contract that would cut pay by as much as 35 percent and raise healthcare premiums. The union rank and file rejected this; one week later, Alaska locked them out.

Alaska asserts that dumping the baggage handlers will save about $13 million. Additional savings of an expected $80 to $85 million will come from slashing the wages of its pilots by 21.9 to 34.3 percent, a travesty imposed in arbitration. Negotiations are ongoing to determine what will be squeezed from the flight attendants, clerks, and counter personnel.

A third example of callous cuts is United Airlines’ pension-fund default at $9 billion, the largest in U.S. history. In June, a bankruptcy judge allowed United to pocket $3.2 billion of the money owed to its 120,000 workers and retirees and to turn over its four pensions plans to the government’s Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation. This outfit is itself in huge debt and close to bankruptcy.

Pension-fund defaults are growing, a storm gathering force. It appears that most corporate giants grossly mismanage pension funds and regularly shortchange their contributions, just as United did.

The reality for workers. “Structural changes” and “productivity improvements”: these are the terms that economists and their embedded reporters use to describe the layoffs and speedup that, for workers, mean either joblessness and the threat of pauperism, or exhaustion.

Benefit costs are “a drag,” according to the Christian Science Monitor. The newspaper does not add that thousands of GM workers will spend the next few months and years working harder and faster, paying more for healthcare and wondering when their plant will close. It leaves out that tens of thousands of retirees without pensions will dread their elder years.

Alaska’s “trimming” means baggage handlers and ramp agents, who after many years on the job would make $20 an hour, will be unemployed, replaced by non-union workers whose top pay is $11.50 per hour. A living wage in the Seattle area is $17 per hour.

United Airlines, which has been laying off workers for years, has increased flights to Asia and expanded business in other ways. But it is still not hiring, and still pressing its workers for concessions.

In the 1990s, pilots were given hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of United stock in exchange for major salary and benefit cuts stock value that was swallowed up by United’s bankruptcy. “I call it legalized crime,” one pilot told the Washington Post. “[H]ere’s another part of the retirement I was promised that is gone. And now my Social Security is at risk. Where does it all end? You feel brutalized by the system.”

The road ahead. Workers at General Motors lament that some of the most productive plants are the ones being closed. Karl Marx explained why this is so in Capital.

Under the profit system, technological advances, by increasing productivity, make workers’ livelihoods more precarious. High productivity constantly makes fewer workers necessary to do a job. And that means mounting layoffs, creating an “inexhaustible reservoir of disposable labour-power,” as Marx put it.

The poverty-stricken unemployed are reserve workers who can be forced to toil the longest hours for the least pay. Economically, their availability is a dead weight depressing wages; politically, they have the potential to be used as strikebreakers. In short, a certain level of unemployment brings profit to the owning class and misery to the working class.

The widening gap between rich and poor is disposing of middle-income workers. And this is not accidental or temporary, but, in a capitalist economy, inevitable. As Marx wrote, “Accumulation of wealth at one pole is, therefore, at the same time accumulation of misery, agony of toil, slavery, ignorance, brutality, mental degradation, at the opposite pole.”

Marx also said that the system creates its own gravediggers, by bringing workers together and fostering conditions that make them desperate for change. Certainly, conditions today for U.S. working people are untenable, and their patience may be nearly gone. Wages are falling, taxes blatantly favor the rich, bankruptcy “reform” benefits the banks, and long-term joblessness is pervasive. As the war against Iraq becomes more and more despised, big businesses and government will find it more and more difficult to extract “patriotic sacrifices.”

But the U.S. working class has a long history of making sacrifices in its own interests. Militant strikes are one powerful way to fight back. If Alaska Airlines pilots, flight attendants, mechanics and clerks had gone out on strike in solidarity, and the county labor council had backed them, the baggage handlers would be back at work. A general strike throughout a whole city or region to stop a big plant closure would not only win jobs back, but give heart to union ranks across the country and around the world.

When militancy like this arises, the labor leaders who only know how to make concessions will be replaced with genuine leaders from the ranks. That will be a fine and needed step toward replacing a system of planned obsolescence for workers with one of planned abundance for all. Advances in technology and productivity will then mean not joblessness and empty, anxious days, but opportunities for creative endeavor and, at last, real leisure time.

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