Get ready for corporate America's favorite game: blame the victim. As pundits address the various reasons for the American auto industry's problems a frequent target won't be bloated CEO salaries, a lack of executive accountability or a flawed business plan. The target will be the men and women who go to work every day doing the best job they can.
Just last week, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman gratuitously blamed the United Auto Workers union for the auto industry's current state three times in his column without a hint of evidence behind his allegations. As the bailout debate continues, there will be many more examples to come.
This blame the victim concept is inaccurate and goes against the basic foundation of the American Dream.
First, critics of autoworkers - or construction workers, public service workers or any number of other employees who have sometimes managed to join together and win decent wages and benefits - fail to mention that workers have been taking it on the chin and making sacrifices for years. At the Big Three automakers, workers have already taken significant wage and benefit cuts in their last two contracts negotiated in 2005 and 2007. By the end of the current contract, the gap in labor costs between union and non-union U.S. auto companies will be nearly eliminated. At the same time, studies continue to show that union represented workers, both in the auto industry and in general, are more productive, more efficient and have superior health and safety records.
But even more disturbing than the inaccuracy of the attacks against working people is the premise on which they are based - that in order to survive, workers in Detroit and everywhere must match their wages and benefits to workers who make less and labor under worse conditions.
The American Dream is about upward mobility through middle class jobs, not an economic race to the bottom. Middle class jobs built our country by allowing one generation to work hard, support a family and give their kids opportunities they never had themselves. And those jobs were based on good wages and benefits that improved over time to meet the demands and costs of a modern society.
We are told huge corporate salaries and multi-million dollar bonuses are necessary because these lofty incentives drive the innovation and entrepreneurial spirit behind a free-market economy. But when that same free market economy allows workers to negotiate for wages and benefits that match their skills and production, they ludicrously get the blame for ruining an entire industry.
As the union representing the men and women who build America, we hear the same thing in the construction industry. Anti-union groups complain about prevailing wage jobs that pay the workers responsible for building our roads, bridges, mass-transit and energy systems in the highest skilled positions as much as $40 an hour. That's a good, family-supporting job. But it's less than what a typical corporate CEO literally makes in 10 seconds - despite being in part responsible for our current economic crisis and now lining up for billion-dollar handouts.
Everyone will have to make sacrifices before our economy turns around. Working people have already made more sacrifices than most. But we cannot go backwards, lowering standards and degrading the foundation of the American Dream. Working people and good jobs built our economy and they are the key to our economic recovery.