- Autoworkers Under the Gun: A Shop-Floor View of the End of the American Dream by Gregg Shotwell
Autoworkers Under the Gun, Gregg Shotwell’s brilliant book-length compendium of his shop-floor newsletter entitled Live Bait & Ammo, conveys sharp wit, poignant and prescient insights, unapologetic indignation, occasionally earthy humour, and yet so much more. An auto-worker and United Auto Workers (uaw) member in Michigan for thirty years, Shotwell’s newsletter series spread far beyond the factory walls via the Internet, spurring other uaw members to form the Soldiers of Solidarity (sos) protest movement against concessions and corporate bankruptcies. Reading his missives makes it easy to see why Shotwell galvanized fellow union members to action. A superb scribe with a keen eye for detail and a gift for turning phrases into rhetorical daggers, Shotwell used his newsletters to catalogue, in amazing detail, how parts manufacturer Delphi spun off from General Motors in robust shape but rapidly descended into debt and bankruptcy. More importantly, he anticipated the decimation of the formerly solid contractual scaffolding of wages, benefits, and work rules, and the inevitably devastating blowback this had on his coworkers – two-tier wages for new employees, increased pension and health-care contributions, layoffs, and the concomitant upheavals to people’s lives and communities. In the process, he weaves a narrative that is alternatively laugh-out-loud funny, infuriating, and heart-rending.
At his most humorous, Shotwell combines the Gonzo journalistic style of Hunter S. Thompson with the shop-floor perspectives of Rivethead author Ben Hamper. Describing the density of helium balloons at a union convention, he writes, “I felt like I was in the bottom of a bubble gum machine.… Balloons got in my eyes and several of my industrial brothers were snorting helium and speaking in tongues.” (46–47) His mock conversation with a representative on Delphi’s Ethics Line may elicit hearty laughter. (144–146) Yet Shotwell aims for and delivers far more than laughs. Close readings of labour contracts and the business press equip Shotwell to dispel inflated claims from business leaders and journalists about “legacy costs” in auto-workers’ wages and health care benefits. (122) His well-informed perspectives invoke labour history to compare production quality standards to workers’ efforts a century earlier to maintain the quality and prices of kosher products, terming each a “living agreement” that workers themselves uphold. (61)
Shotwell’s “Strike Back” from January 2001 blazes like a cannonball across the corporate and labour-relations bows with its fervent call for workers’ power and control, reminiscent in fury and scope of how Allen Ginsberg’s Howl exploded onto the postwar cultural horizon almost a half-century earlier. Shotwell’s plea for widespread resistance to social indignities and economic insecurity emerges most forcefully in his poem, “Strike back”: “Strike back because your brothers and sisters are laid off. Strike back because you hate the bastards. Strike back to redeem your dignity. Strike back for full employment. Strike back to abolish inequality. Strike back because your job is a bore and your boss is an ass. Strike back for freedom… Strike back because Medicare doesn’t cover prescriptions for your mother… Strike back.” (31–32)
Strong research and a laser-like focus make Shotwell a formidable opponent for company and union alike, both of which he roundly criticizes. He adroitly pivots between skewering Delphi for its “stockpiled debt in the US” and the “swindle” of its “corporate restructuring” abroad, and [End Page 267] his repeated contention that uaw was complicit in allowing Delphi to shed its obligations to the former General Motors employees. (159–166, 69) One can trace a deepening seriousness in Shotwell’s tone as the book – whose newsletter entries proceed chronologically – careens toward its ominous, painful end for Delphi employees. His calls for workers’ resistance grow from work-to-rule tactics to forming a mass labour “revolt” akin to the civil rights movement to save the “next generation of workers.” (211) Here one must ask why, despite the spread of sos, acts of...