01/04/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

It Takes a Movement to Save an Auto Industry

The key reforms of the New Deal--Social Security, the Works Projects Administration, the Wagner Labor Relations Act, higher minimum wages--didn't come about simply because FDR was elected and surrounded himself with smart advisors. They also came about because there was an active and militant labor movement pushing FDR and Congress to act.

Likewise, LBJ didn't wake up one morning and decide to spend a good part of his political capital to get the Civil Rights Act passed. The Civil Rights Act was preceded by a decade of a mass civil rights movement marching in the streets, staging boycotts, registering voters, and committing civil disobedience. There was a creative tension between the JFK and LBJ administrations and the civil rights movement--and often anger as well--but this creative tension between Washington politicians and a mass movement is what ultimately drove fundamental change.

This is no less true today. It's interesting to try to read the tea leaves to guess how centrist or progressive Obama will be and to speculate how his super-smart, and largely centrist advisors will influence his direction. But the Obama administration is likely to be more progressive and less centrist if there are organized movements pushing him in a more progressive direction. Obama--the ex-community organizer turned professional politician--certainly understands the sophisticated play between elected officials and popular movements in determining how far elected officials will go to bring about change.

Which brings us to the auto industry. Allowing the auto industry--with its deep interconnections to other businesses such steel and rubber, parts suppliers, and car dealers, which employ 3 million Americans--to go bankrupt would be disastrous for the nation and could push the recession into a depression. But the auto industry, like much of the manufacturing sector where employees shower after work instead of before work, seems to have lost the political clout it once had.

When Citigroup's management screws up, Bob Rubin can spend the weekend on the phone with Tim Geithner and Hank Paulson and walk away Monday morning with $20 billion in Federal bailout funds and $340 billion in guarantees for toxic assets with almost no strings attached--No need to show a plan for Citigroup's long-term viability. Not so with the auto industry.

There's no question the auto industry has been mismanaged, but no worse than the Wall Street masters of the universe like Citigroup, AIG and Bear Stearns have mismanaged the financial service industry, helping cause the current economic meltdown which threatens the homes and jobs of tens of millions of people in America and around the world. But when the auto industry asks for federal help to stave off bankruptcy and save 3 million jobs, politicians and the media demand detailed plans for fundamental restructuring and major give-backs from its workers and unions. It's not that there shouldn't be strings attached to federal bailouts. It's that there's a major imbalance between the ways businesses that make physical things we actually use and businesses that manipulate money are being treated.

To save itself, the auto industry, and particularly its workers, may need to dig deep and rediscover its tradition of militancy and political theater. The CEOs of the Big 3 clearly have a tin ear for political salesmanship. Flying to Washington in their private jets was a bone-headed move (although I never saw politicians and media pundits demand that investment bankers receiving Federal bailout funds give up their private jets and company-paid country club memberships). And doing penance by driving 900 miles back to Washington in hybrid cars doesn't seem to have done the trick in turning around Congress and public opinion.

So here's a better idea--picture a massive caravan of thousands of people effected by the auto industry snaking from Detroit through Michigan, Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania to Washington, landing up in front of the Capitol demanding action to save their jobs and staying there until Congress acts. It would be made up of blue and white collar autoworkers, steelworkers, rubber workers, owners and workers from small business that supply auto parts, owners of car dealerships and salespeople who work there, waitresses from the corner café or bar next to factories and showrooms where people go for a burger or a beer after work or shopping for a car. Let the American people, the media and Congress see the faces of the people who would lose their jobs and their homes if the American auto industry goes bankrupt. And then let's see if Congress tells them all to "drop dead".

That's the kind of mass action that helped build the American middle class and that created the political and economic conditions in which someone could graduate from high school, go to work, earn enough to support a family and buy a modest house, and maybe send their kids to college so the next generation could do better than the last. It may take that kind of mass action again to preserve that American dream.

I received a fundraising email with the following quote: "Rosa sat, so Martin could walk. Martin walked, so Obama could run. Obama is running, so our children can fly." Maybe we need to sit, and walk, and march again if we and Obama together are to be able to help our children fly.

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