The GM strike that occupied the headlines this summer may be a portent of things to come, as a new wave of corporate consolidations and trade agreements destabilize the last of America’s great industries. Both UAW leaders and outside observers compared the strike to the historic 1937 “Sit-Down Strike” that established a symbiotic relationship between the UAW and General Motors. In exchange for a living wage for its members, the UAW provided GM (and Ford and Chrysler) with a steady supply of trained workers. But this 61-year relationship—or “social contract,” as Michigan State Representative Greg Kaza (Republican-Rochester Hills) calls it—is under fire today, as the Big Three, under the pressure of NAFTA and GATT, attempt to restructure the automobile industry. While union leaders did attempt to stop the passage of NAFTA in 1994, they—and, more importantly, the rank-and-file members—are only now beginning to recognize the changes that global free trade has in store for the automobile industry.

While GM denies that it intends to cut back or abandon its American operations, its 1997 Annual Report offers a somewhat different story. Inside the front cover, the report’s theme is splashed across three pages: “Go common. Go lean & fast. Go global. Go for growth. GM is going everywhere.” Well, perhaps not everywhere. The Annual Report discusses new GM plants in China (Vice President Gore, true to his campaign donors, attended the groundbreaking ceremony for the plant, which will begin production by the end of this year), Argentina, Brazil, Poland, and Thailand. No new plants are planned for the United States. While Pablo Lopez Perez, a worker at GM’s truck assembly plant in Silao, Mexico, says, “I like to think there’s work enough for everyone,” is it any wonder that American workers don’t trust GM when it argues that new factories in lower-wage countries don’t pose a threat to their jobs?

Between 1995 and 1997, GM’s vehicle production in the United States declined by 129,000 units, while its combined production in Canada and Mexico rose by 161,000 units. That’s why this strike had a different feel from those of the past. The Flint Journal noted that “what appears to be at the backbone of public support for the strikers is not necessarily a pro-union sentiment, but a legitimate fear of losing local jobs to foreign work forces and technological advances, all in the name of becoming more globally competitive.” And while the Journal’s letter to the editor column saw its share of management charges and union counter-charges, many of the letter- writers, like Ray Lord of Fenton, put the strike in a broader context: “This historic strike is about decent jobs, about where one can live and be a part of his or her grown children’s lives, and about watching their grandchildren mature and be able to work in the Flint area, if they choose. It is about loyal, courageous Americans who want a piece of the pie for themselves and their families.”

Conservatives and libertarians simultaneously dismiss unions as a relic of socialism and complain that union workers make too much. There’s no doubt that unions have hurt their own cause over the years by protecting deadbeat workers or making demands that the public (and not simply corporate management) finds unreasonable. But autoworkers today are solidly a part of the middle class, and union workers (especially UAW members) formed the core of the socially conservative “Reagan Democrats.” Because of union intervention, many autoworkers can support their families on a single income, keep their children out of daycare, and live in the same community that their parents and grandparents did. Those who argue that “efficiency” and the “global marketplace” are more important than these concerns show where their priorities lie.