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Watching the cars rolling by, it became clear what a hard road lies ahead for regular working people.
Politicians were enjoying their rides on the old classics Missouri Rep. Paul LeVota in a vintage cobalt Cadillac, state Sen. Charlie Wheeler in a 1950 Chevy Deluxe, state Rep. Cathy Jolly in a white Bel-Air. It was a reminder of the good old days when American automakers were kings of the world, and a sad reminder that those days are gone and, perhaps, a metaphor for how Democrats just assume organized labor will carry them. Then there were the new breeds: a Black Lincoln Navigator for Harrisonville Sen. Chris Koster (the only Republican anywhere near the Grand Avenue Viaduct that day, God bless him), a Dodge Durango for Construction & General Laborers 264, and a Hummer for the UAW all gas-suckin' reminders that none of us learned a goddamn thing from the 1970s and we're all doomed to repeat history forever.
Just a couple of weeks earlier at General Motors' Fairfax plant, workers celebrated their 10 millionth car, a black 2006 Chevrolet Malibu Maxx. They cranked out Malibus all summer, even as they waited for their union reps to decide whether to renegotiate their health insurance. The contract wasn't set to expire for a couple more years, but a few months ago, near bankruptcy, GM claimed that paying for its workers' health insurance and pensions was killing the company, adding $1,525 to every sticker in its U.S. lots.
But c'mon. It's a lot easier for GM execs to blame the company's woes on its workers instead of, say, themselves.
"Right now, health care is the issue, because the company, in the form of its CEO, Rick Wagoner, made a big spectacle at the shareholders' meeting last month," Dave Peterson, president of UAW Local 31, told me back in June. "They're saying we're in this big crisis. My question, and most of the [union] leadership's question, is, show us the crisis. Where have you been spending the money?"
Well, for one thing, the company has been furiously writing checks to China. But what's good for General Motors is good for America, and cutting health insurance is in vogue right now.
"It's a huge race to the bottom in terms of what companies are doing to their workers," Peterson told me. "Communities in this country are losing good-paying manufacturing jobs. And there's more of a loss of white-collar jobs in engineering, information technology, call centers, help desks. Nothing's insulated or protected from this fast-paced movement of capital out of the high-wage, industrialized countries of the world."
That's what made me feel for the union guys in their American-made cars. Because it's all true. A few days after the parade, the Census Bureau put out new numbers showing that the country's poverty rate has risen again for the fourth year in a row it's now at 12.7 percent even as the economy supposedly recovered. Huh? The economy's better, but more people live in poverty? Someone's getting rich, but it ain't the working people.
That sounds like a job for the unions!
If they can figure out how to do it.
In Berkley Park, a few hundred people stuck around to eat hot dogs, talk politics and listen to speeches under a relentless sun. Congressman Emanuel Cleaver gave a rousing sermon, climaxing with a scream: "You built this nation! This nation is yours!"