Sunday, December 03, 2006

Greetings and welcome to my first entry. Although I established this blog in 2004, I'm only just posting an initial entry.

Below is a very short (relevant) snippet of an article I wrote earlier this year (2006). I'm currently editing it. The references to tables which aren't in the blog may frustrate some, but time doesn't permit me to insert these at the moment. N.B.: This was a section of my doctoral dissertation, completed and defended in 2005.

General Motors Oshawa: A Condensed History

Oshawa is located 35 miles east of Toronto and at the edge of Lake Ontario, almost directly across Rochester, New York. The city of Oshawa is firmly nestled in the bosom of the industrial heartland of Southern Ontario, a corridor that stretches between Windsor, Ontario and Quebec City and is joined by the Trans-Canada highway.

Southern Ontario maintains an intimate connection to the U.S. automotive manufacturing and assembly industry and the province of Ontario recently surpassed Michigan as the most prolific producer of automobiles in North America.

In short, this region’s economy is dependent on the income that a rich, primary industry delivers. Oshawa hosts GMC’s Canadian headquarters and the largest complex of manufacturing plants in Canada. General Motors’ plants visually dominate the lakeshore vista of Oshawa, crowding the skyline with hundreds of ‘stacks’ — exhaust chimneys which release plant emissions into the local atmosphere.

There is no mistaking that Oshawa is virtually a single industry city, with all the associated characteristics and flaws one might expect, including above-average pollution levels and widespread trepidation due to the domination of employment by a single industry.

General Motors is Canada’s largest exporter and produced almost 950,000 vehicles in 2003, of which 864,000 were exported, primarily to the U.S. market. In the past decade GMC’s parent corporation has invested C$6.7 billion in its Canadian operations, about $1.2 billion of which has been invested in Oshawa’s facilities since 1997. GM’s 2005 announcement that a global layoff of 30,000 workers will immediately shut down a third shift and one car plant in 2008. According to Frise, “On a per capita basis, Canada has about three times as much vehicle assembly capacity as the United States (Frise, 1999: 27).” It is worth noting that Oshawa’s automotive facilities ship over ninety-five percent of their manufactured goods to consumers living south of the Canada-U.S. border.

False Consciousness?

Oshawa autoworkers’ relatively high wages have consistently been at the root of false consciousness arguments. A measure of the wage differential between various sectors in Canada’s labour market (see Table 2) reveals a major gap between the manufacturing and service sectors.

This disparity is even greater when one substitutes the average wage of a General Motors assembler (see Table 3) for the average manufacturing wage. Juxtaposed against the average accommodation or food services worker there lies an average annual wage gap of $56,863. This gap alone represents almost one and a half times the average Ontario wage. (TABLE 3 ABOUT HERE).

In 1998 the top twenty percent of Canadian families had an average annual income of $68,518 (Statistics Canada, 2000) which places the majority of GMC Oshawa autoworker families among the top quintile of Canadian income earners. From this standpoint it is not terribly difficult to see the source of the claim that GMC autoworkers are no longer part of the working-class.

During the postwar era, industrial unionized workers’ comparative economic gains have been cited as chief among the reasons for the demise of forms of social transformation and social justice. The heart of this argument claims that the wage worker’s enthusiasm for social change evaporates inversely with an attendant increase in the size of their pay-packet, creating a relationship between group consciousness and material surplus. If Marx’s assessment of proletarian consciousness was correct there should be some evidence of the potential for ‘class action’ — a conscious, class-based social group activity that is counter-hegemonic in character (Mann, 1973: 45-54) — among industrial workers. According to Mann (1973) working-class consciousness comprises identity (common cause with others in the working-class), opposition (to the interests of the capitalists), totality (acceptance of the societal causes of class as all-encompassing) and a goal of an alternative society which one struggles toward. It is in this context that the main purpose of this study lies in an attempt to determine and document specific dimensions and degrees of oppositional working-class consciousness.

In 2000-2001, I surveyed unionized General Motors of Canada (GMC) autoworkers located in Oshawa Ontario, Canada, in an attempt to determine whether these workers have seen their oppositional class consciousness subverted and transformed into particular forms of social integration as alleged by some observers (see for example Hout, Brooks and Manza, 2001). I used measures of (1) autoworkers’ class imagery, (2) their working-class self-identity and (3) their working-class consciousness, with a focus on oppositional class consciousness. I assert that Oshawa autoworkers’ material advantage is insufficient to transform their proletarian consciousness. Of course class consciousness is a dynamic process and I make no claim that the measures used here prove the existence of a ‘fixed’ and static proletarian consciousness. As Wright put it, “class consciousness is notoriously hard to measure (1997: 407).” But if working-class consciousness exists then a variety of discrete expressions of class consciousness should be detectable in some fashion and therefore measurable.

Due to space constraints I focus primarily on the current dimensions of oppositional working class consciousness found among surveyed GMC autoworkers. Comparative references will be made to a corresponding survey of Hamilton steelworkers and their families conducted in the 1990s (Livingstone and Mangan, 1996), as well as measures of class consciousness provided by the biannual OISE/UT Survey of Educational Attitudes in Ontario, conducted by Livingstone, Hart and Davie (1979-2000). I test the question identified by Livingstone and Mangan (1996), namely whether

... there are significant associations between employed men’s current locations in the economic class structure of advanced capitalism and their expressions of class consciousness (1996: 50).

The respondents in this study are members of the Canadian Auto Workers union (CAW) Local 222, the largest local affiliate in one of the most highly-organized trade unions in Canada (Gindin, 1995; Yates, 1998). The group under study here is composed of both unskilled and semi-skilled automobile assemblers and skilled trades workers, all of whom are employed at Oshawa’s General Motors (GMC) automotive plants.

Data were gathered primarily through the use of responses to a series of questionnaire probes (N=102), my own participant observation as a General Motors (GMC) assembler from 1984-1991, a number of semi-structured interviews (N=5) conducted for this study which explore autoworkers’ class consciousness and excerpts from seventeen interviews originally conducted for the Working-Class Learning Strategies (WCLS) study (see Livingstone and Sawchuk, 2004) that help to further illustrate autoworkers’ jobs, security and life on the General Motors assembly line. These methods were used to gauge the current levels of social class imagery, working class social identity and oppositional working-class consciousness among highly-organized, industrial workers in a mature industry.

My own experience of working as a manual worker on General Motors’ assembly lines for seven years (1984-1991) has furnished me with an additional measure: firsthand intimate knowledge of the assembly processes at General Motors (GMC), working-class mores and expressions of worker consciousness, discontent and solidarity.

Oshawa Autoworkers

As a result of their wage, one-half of General Motors of Canada’s unionized workforce is more affluent than the bottom four-fifths of Canadian income earners (Statistics Canada, 2000). At an average household income of $71,815 Oshawa residents enjoy higher income than the provincial or national averages. This study asked respondents to supply their total (gross) annual family income as reported in Table 1. (TABLE 1 ABOUT HERE).
Most respondents (68%) claimed their household income was in the range of $60-100,000 a year. Over 25% claimed household incomes of over $100,000 per annum. Due to their comparatively favourable economic position, this highly-organized, considerably advanced sector has ostensibly been characterized as a blue-collar elite whose manners, behaviours, political and social views — in fact, the core of their very consciousness — has been transformed by the girth of their wallet.

The widespread belief that changing material conditions directly creates ‘false consciousness’ was expressed by former Federal Member of Parliament for Oshawa, Mike Breaugh, who described Oshawa’s GMC workers as follows:

If they are an hourly-rated worker..they’re going to be making good money by anybody’s standards, sixty five to seventy five thousand, in that range. If they are a skilled tradesman [sic], then they will be much in demand and they will probably be into six figures. These are people who have at least two cars – brand new – probably got a boat, probably got a camper, probably got a cottage. These people are concerned about how they accumulate wealth, how they hold onto it; taxation is a big problem.

Here Breaugh claimed that the withdrawal of Oshawa autoworkers’ electoral support for democratic socialism was due to the ideological shift directly generated by their relative affluence. Breaugh’s statement is not too distant from the testimony of a 19th century Staffordshire manufacturer on the disposition of his workforce: “you cannot get them to talk of politics so long as they are well employed (Heilbroner, 1967: 155).”

In the Canadian context, GMC Oshawa’s auto assemblers and skilled trades workers are among the best compensated and most densely unionized industrial workers in the country (Lewchuk, 1996; Yates, 2000) and in many ways Oshawa remains an oasis of relative prosperity in a desert of rusted industrial carcasses. Using Oshawa autoworkers’ comparative affluence as a starting point, a key question of this study is whether these well-heeled auto workers are moving closer to those who have social, material and ideological domination. While stratification theorists typically refer to the imbalance of distributed resources between the lower ranks of society and those in the upper stratum, this study examines a small proletarian elite whose cause has historically been facilitated by favourable historical and economic conditions.

I'll link this to the 'false consciousness reigns supreme among the labour aristocracy' argument in a future post, or simply visit my website for more. For those who are curious, I did not find causal associations between autoworkers' wages and 'false consciousness'.

I'd be interested in hearing from any industrial worker who has thoughts about working-class consciousness and relative affluence. Please email me with your experiences and opinions.

My future research plans include an expansion of my survey into mining and auto parts production (where youth, women and visible minorities work).