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George Clarke

General Motors Had a Bonanza Year,
But Its Workers Got Nothing Out of It

(24 February 1940)

From Socialist Appeal, Vol. IV No. 8, 24 February 1940, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

1939 was a big bonanza year for General Motors.

According to the corporation’s report on February 7, the coupon clippers cleaned up a cool $183,000,000. The DuPont crowd took $35,000,000 of the swag.

Let’s break down these big numbers and see just how the profit was made:

For every one of an estimated 225,000 employees the corporation took approximately $814. The corporation received a profit of over 50 cents for every dollar paid out in wages. A profit of roughly $119 a car was made and shareholders received $4.04 per share of common stock outstanding. This compares with $2.17 received by shareholders in 1938. Par value of GM stock is $10 per share.

These big numbers smell like prosperity. Yes, indeed. Plenty of gravy for the fat parasites whose function in production is sunning their hides on swanky yachts in Florida or rebuilding the ruined fortunes of some broken-down European count to make him a good match with one of their dissipated daughters.

It smelled like prosperity to be sure – but all the wage slaves on the assembly lines, in the press rooms, the die shop and the foundries – the men whose sweat and skill and muscle made the $119 profit on the Chevrolets, Buicks, Cadillacs, Lasalles, Pontiacs and Oldsmobiles – all they got was the smell.

What the Workers Got

Most of the 225,000 workers employed by General Motors in Detroit, Pontiac, Flint, Saginaw, Lansing and in the plants of General Motors from Tarrytown, N.Y. to Los Angeles, who average on the conveyor belt almost a car a minute, didn’t make much more in wages for an entire year than the $814 that the corporation made in profit out of each man.

The corporation makes big propaganda out of the alleged “high” wages paid to its employees. But the workers of Michigan, Ohio, Indiana and elsewhere know differently.

The “Lucky” Workers

Lucky is the worker who puts in nine or even eight months of the year working. Lucky is the worker who can get through the year without having his car, his radio and often his clothing repossessed by the finance corporation for failure to make payments. More often, the auto worker feels himself extremely fortunate if he can get through the year without spending several months on the relief rolls. It’s a “rich” auto worker that can keep shoes on his kiddies so they can attend school the year out.

The Other Workers

Even so, these are the “favored” employees. They don’t include more than one-fourth of the industry’s workers who have been pushed out of employment by labor-saving devices, new machinery and speeded-up production. The only smell they get of the “prosperity” is the curt “no” of the personnel manager day in, day out, at the employment office.

As far as General Motors is concerned these men are through. If they can get on the relief rolls, well and good. Otherwise, its none of the corporation’s business!

The Union’s Responsibility

But it is the business of the auto workers. Underpaid auto workers mean suffering, semi-starvation, insecurity, malnutrition for the children, unsanitary housing conditions. Unemployed auto workers mean a constant threat to the wage scale of the employed – a steady reserve army of potential scabs and fascists. It is the business of the auto workers. It is not a hopeless problem – something (can and must be done about it!

The United Automobile Worker, from which most of the figures for this article are culled suggests that $200 more be paid the employed auto workers annually “and still leave profits above $150,000,000. This is a profit figure that only one or two corporations in the world, aside from GM, have ever been able to touch.”

A very modest suggestion. Just contrast the fabulous profit of GM for 1939 with the miserable wages of its workers, and you begin to get an idea of how modest this suggestion is. Then contrast the present annual wage of the auto worker with the minimum set for security by the U.S. Department of Labor and the modesty of the CIO suggestion becomes appalling.

$183,000,000 profit for General Motors coupon clippers for the year 1939! And how the parasites squander the millions made for them by the workers – gold-plated bathtubs, twenty-five dollar a plate dinners for monkeys rigged up in swallow-tailed coats, $40,000 for a coming-out party for some bourgeois brat, thousands for sleek nags and sleeker stables – money to burn for pleasure-mad plutocrats.

What Could Be Done

Just suppose this $183,000,000 were turned into wages and jobs for the auto workers:

Is this “reform” necessary’ Every General Motors worker will agree – it is more than necessary, it is imperative.

But is it possible? Here there will be hesitation and doubt. It seems a stupendous undertaking.

It Can Be Done!

Yes, but the unionization of General Motors seemed as big a job in its time until ... Until the workers of Flint sat down in the plants, barricaded them against cops, vigilantes and tin-horn soldiers and swore to remain in the plants until the last stretcher carrying the body of the last man was carried out. Then even Frank Murphy became a “friend”. He didn’t send the National Guard in after the strikers only because Sloane, DuPont, Knudsen and Co. feared lest their precious machinery be scratched by indignant workers. General Motors went down on its knees. The plants were unionized.

That was three years ago! The spirit of ’37 must return! The auto workers have bigger stakes to fight for in 1940. Timid officials will wail: “It is impossible”. No! Everything is possible! The rank and file must organize for action – with determination, audacity and courage the gains of 1940 will make the triumph of 1937 pale into insignificance.

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