Tuesday, February 03, 2009

"Twilight time" at Ford, with a dose of hope and wisdom

So I took my grandfather's old--old?!--2000 van cruiser to the dealer down the road for a recall fix (you don't want to know, but it includes the cruise control and the vehicle bursting into flames, even when it isn't running) early this morning, and it was almost what I expected: no customers, employees sitting around in the waiting room with me (cute girls!), salespeople and other staff walking around trying to look "busy" when it's obvious there's no way in hell that's going to be possible, and a few other of the depressing sights and sounds one might imagine walking into a car dealership in America these days.

Mind you that I took the van in just to have the recall work done, gratis (FREE). As you might expect, I waited while they did it and one the big-shots in the garage came back and asked if I wanted the whole-enchilada--check the brakes, blow out the transmission fluid, check the battery, change the oil, wash the van, kick the tires, etc., etc. . Naturally, I had my trusty credit card in-hand, the damage (to my finances) was going to be impressive, and it was!

After what seemed like at least a two hour wait (not bad), they were done with everything, no hassles, no worries. It felt great to finally have all this done, like a good early-morning dump, both invigorating and a little exhausting, but satisfying and a relief. Now, my van wouldn't suddenly burst into flames spontaneously on the highway or in our garage where it could spread to the house, maybe taking-out a few lawn chairs in the backyard, a squirrel, and maybe an errant opossum. That'll learn 'ya.

Ask any working-class American one of their greatest sources of frustration and anger besides their job or their boss, and they'll immediately home in on their car or truck. Frequently, it's an American-made vehicle like mine, a hand-me-down. For decades and decades--even back when Henry Ford was alive--the auto manufacturers were told by the public, by consumer advocacy groups, the government (but not much here), and everyone with a pulse, to make cars that were safer, more affordable, durable, got better gas mileage, and required very little maintenance. I know, I know--people need jobs, and I'm not going to begrudge that, but why not pay everyone properly? Wasn't that Henry Ford's idea?

Wasn't he an authoritarian nut, a Nazi-supporter? What does that make the latest brew of CEOs who have placed themselves on the extinction list as a class? They haven't believed that Americans should be paid a living-wage, never mind being able to actually afford their products. I know, that whole "logic" thing. The real problem, as usual, is the American obsession with work and the work ethic, a dysfunctional authoritarian division of labor, and greed. This no longer works...so?

Even the new president is overly-obsessed with work and it's a little worrying; but I feel assured that reality of current events is going to change him and his assumptions as it changes everyone else. More work is not always the answer, but a rethinking of productivity, wages, and the division of labor are. True, there is much work to be done getting a sustainable energy policy and economy (the same thing, really, something our intelligent president understands), but what after that? How will work be divided-up? Are we to tolerate more of the same old, same old regarding the policies of employers?

The president appears to be on the same page as working-class Americans here in his vocal support of the right to unionize, the right to collective bargaining that's implicit to a healthy democracy. This is all about the social contract, or what the Republicans and errant Democrats have debased it to. For every recall, every death caused by design-flaws done at the behest of profit and shareholders, and corporate executives, and for every breakdown that could have been avoided but was part of "planned obsolescence," the social contract was violated and discarded again and again. This was the fault of ownership and management, not the UAW, not any union, and not necessarily the consumer, although we have to make an exception with the SUV.

As I was signing the papers for the repairs and maintenance, a very smart, wise Black man shook his head in a chair across from us: "Yeah, Ford isn't going out of business...at least not right away. You know, if they would have just made cars that--maybe they wouldn't look great--didn't cost so much, but got good mileage and didn't need so much maintenance." He was an employee of the Ford dealership. His supervisor did nothing to contradict him, nothing at all. We all agreed, and I had a great talk with this man about the heart of all of this. Call me crazy if you like, but I've always had a greater rapport with Black Americans--they call it as they see it.

But today, at Ford, things have changed. Decorum has changed, and people are tired of towing-the-line for the big-shots, tired of keeping up appearances when it doesn't matter. I'd write that we need to do this and stop holding-our-tongues with employers when things no longer work, but that time passed long ago. Now comes the time to "fix" things, a time of incredible opportunities for working people...if they decide to be those squeaky-wheels that get oiled. We have an opportunity to rollback authoritarianism in the workplace like never before. If we fail to try we'll only have ourselves to blame.

Our children and their grandchildren will also blame us. They will be right. We can make things better, it's just a matter of will, the jaded-be-damned. Get moving, get organized.