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Mark Shields: Are Democrats Still the Workers’ Party?

The party should remember that unions are its best friends.

Before they went upscale on us and started “summering” in the Hamptons and Martha’s Vineyard and drinking Pinot Grigio instead of Bud, the Democrats used to take some pride in being called the political party that stood up for working people — the sort of Americans who get up every day and pack a lunch, punch a clock and shower after a hard day’s work instead of before. But in recent years, an unattractive snobbishness has infected too many Democrats.

Mark Shields
Mark Shields
Nowhere is that arrogant attitude more obvious than in the matter of the financial and economic bailouts — oops, make that rescues — now being underwritten by taxpayers. Compare the patronizing and censorious response from much of the political class to American autoworkers and their Detroit employers with the lavish, no-questions-asked, can-we-do-anything-else-for-you open-handedness shown — by the same political types — toward JPMorgan, Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and Citigroup.

What is the sin of these autoworkers? Is it that they don’t send their children to the best boarding schools or that their trophy wives don’t wear designer gowns? Or could it be that the autoworkers’ kids — instead of the sons and daughters of affluence and influence — are the ones who enlist and who fight and who die in the wars their social and economic “betters” get the nation into?

By flying to Washington in their separate private jets to ask Congress for a loan of public money, the Big Three auto company bosses proved just how tone deaf and terminally out-of-touch they were. But has anybody in the Congress asked about the tax dollars now being used to fuel the private aircraft of any of the banks and the insurance companies who have been given billions? Does Washington treat American manufacturing differently — with more distrust and disrespect — from the way it treats American capital? Absolutely.

Members of the United Auto Workers union working for American car companies earn on the average $28, compared with an average of $25 an hour for nonunion autoworkers. Does anyone think for a moment that the Toyota plant in Georgetown, Ky., would pay its workers — including the annual bonus — at a rate of $30 an hour if there were not a UAW creating the pressure to do so?

It is true that American auto companies also pick up the union workers’ health insurance costs, which average above $12,000 a year per worker. It is also true the United States is the only auto-producing country in the world without national health insurance — a fact that puts all of American manufacturing at a distinct disadvantage to its foreign competitors.

Yes, the American automobile industry should not have been building Hummers instead of Priuses. But that decision was not made by union autoworkers, but by well-tailored graduates of the nation’s best business schools.

Democrats, including President-elect Barack Obama, might do well to take a look at the recent election results in an effort to determine who their friends really are. The largest voting bloc in the American electorate — representing nearly two out of five of all voters — are white noncollege graduates. White male noncollege-graduate voters have been the backbone of the national Republican Party. In 2004, whites without a college education supported President Bush by 61 percent to 38 percent. Obama lost the white male vote nationally by 18 percent, but among white male noncollege-graduate voters who belong to a labor union, he won by 18 percent. Organized labor did a remarkably effective educational and persuasion campaign in behalf of the first black president.

The question before the government in Washington now must be: Can the United States in the 21st century be home to domestic automakers that support middle-class jobs and that are competitive in a global economy?

Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him.

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