Reflections from Hamilton on the 2012 US Election

By: Layla Mashkoor (This is Hamilton)

In the wake of the reelection of  US President Barack Obama an important lesson to take away, especially for a city such as Hamilton, is that the power of the manufacturing sector, the workers, and their unions, is not dead.

Since the 1980s, the composition of the industrial sector has been facing constant restructuring as unions and workers witness a continual disregard for their labour rights.Thereby, it is important to recognize that one of last night’s leading electoral issues was the auto industry bailout and how individuals in places such as Ohio, would vote. There are some who would attribute Obama’s reelection with his decision to rescue the near-bankrupt American auto industry; promising jobs and economic revitalization to broken down, one-industry states. When it comes to the industrial sector, the workers have perhaps been hit the hardest by the economic reform brought on by globalization, and issues of automation due to technological advances. The consequences of this are often played out in the most local environment, impacting workers, their families, and the industrial towns in which they reside. This is evident in Flint, Michigan or Defiance, Ohio, but also in Hamilton, Ontario.

The bailout, which Canada also participated in, provided a band-aid for a much larger problem, the automotive industry, and its workers, represent just one of many manufacturing sectors defending its right to exist within a vicious neoliberal restructuring. Questions that emerge revolve around how to replace the gaps in labour left by shrinking industry, and how manufacturing cities can reorganize social and economic policy to effectively manage rising unemployment rates. The struggles of the auto industry represent the struggles faced across the manufacturing sector. These struggles reverberate through communities, as places which relied heavily on industrial work now face incredible levels of poverty, inequality and exclusion from new forms of creative industry, all in the face of a shrinking social safety net. Cities that historically prospered economically and socially, are now threatened by the competitive nature of globalized trade and the dominance of a pro-business global agenda.

Further, the bailout was an issue where the two candidates remained largely divided in their principles. In opposition to Obama’s bailout, Romney promoted a bankruptcy approach, which pushed for the managed bankruptcy of the auto industry in hopes of a drastic restructuring effort. He promoted new labour agreements to match competitors, reduced retiree benefits and of course an anti-union agenda for the auto industry. As imperfect as Obama’s own policies may be, the industrial sector, its workers and their families should breathe a small sigh of relief that, in principle, the policies which protect the worker beat out the capitalist narrative.

However, this is not to say that under the Obama administration the working class is being protected. The manufacturing industries which once supported local and regional economies are now providing less security to workers and are a continued threat to the middle class. Meanwhile, Michael Burroway (1) writes of the evolving industrialized states, Brazil, China, India, South Africa and South Korea, which developed countries must now compete with for industrial labour. These emerging economies, where regulations are loose and labour is cheap, entice multinational corporations to come and open business, thereby disincentivizing corporations to keep their factories domestic. The bailout and its continued national importance during the election is a symbolic movement against the aggressive nature of neoliberal policies. An albeit tiny, but still present, stop sign when it comes to the ruthless treatment of labour in the manufacturing sector.

As a Hamiltonian, this is the most hopeful idea to emerge from the election because I believe here in Hamilton we see the results of a transitioning industrial sector played out daily. And perhaps all this is not so much a victory, but just prolonging the inevitable, but however you look at it, it symbolizes the strength of the industrial sector in the national agenda.

In the end it is important to remember these issues occur within a binary of two dominant political agendas, neither of which provides groundbreaking solutions to the myriad of issues causing drastic structural inequality. What is required is solutions outside the traditional political narrative of the iron fist versus the velvet glove. More complex forms of resistance are required to combat the fall-out of changing industrial sectors, and special attention must be paid to the devastating class struggle, threatening the economic stability of many countries which consider themselves developed.

The great crime of neoliberalism is its separation of politics from ethics, evidenced by the fact that whether to rescue a domestic auto industry, saving millions of jobs and billions in lost tax revenue, was even a question worth debating nationally. Perhaps it is a comment on the global state of affairs, when it is worthwhile to stop and recognize that keeping labour domestic and being fair to unions, are policies that do not go unappreciated.

“any man’s death diminishes me,  because I am involved in mankind.  And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” – John Donne

(1) Burroway, Michael. “The Global Turn: Lessons from Southern Labor Scholars and Their Labor Movements”. Work and Occupation Vol. 36 (2). May 2009. P. 87 – 95

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