Just yesterday, Reverend Jesse Jackson, Sr., joined actor/activist Danny Glover and several political leaders on the first stop of a four-day, 11-state tour to support unemployed, Detroit manufacturing workers. Jackson also delivered the keynote speech in the heart of Motor City at the 54th annual Detroit NAACP Fight for Freedom dinner. Unlike most of his speeches that center on the disenfranchised, Jackson's underdogs were the nation's three biggest automakers, who he says has had to jump through hoops to get bailout funds, while the banks received billions with little sanctions.
The government has paid out some $83 billion in Federal Reserve funding so far to Chrysler and General Motors. But, in many respects, Jackson argues, those at the big auto companies have had to pay a price by renegotiating deals with their unions, suffering through several factory closures and shutting down hundreds of dealers. And Blacks have taken the brunt of the suffering, according to the Economic Policy Institute in Washington. The institute estimates 140,000 African-Americans held jobs in the auto industry toward the end of 2007, which fell to about 110,000 at the end of 2008. This news has led Jackson to come up with an unusual if not provocative argument: the auto industry needs saving, and African-Americans should lead the cause. ESSENCE.com spoke with the civil rights leader about what he expects from his fellow Black leaders, how he believes the Obama administration messed up, and who is really to blame for the demise of the auto industry.
ESSENCE.COM: I have to admit—this is fascinating. I've never heard this idea put like this before. So what do you expect civil rights groups like the NAACP to do to help the auto industry?
JESSE JACKSON, SR.: We can demand that the civil rights laws of inclusion be enforced. Now that we have such heavy government investment in the auto industry, equal opportunity laws and contract compliance in dealerships and suppliers must still apply. Since the Black middle class is such a big part of the auto industry and we're such great purchasers of cars, our share of workers, dealers and suppliers must be affirmed. We can't have a situation where, in the name of emergency, civil rights laws are suspended. We have to make sure our participants are protected.
ESSENCE.COM: Rev. Jackson, what do you think African-Americans should do to bring the auto industry back to glory?
JACKSON: The Black community is the canary in the mine. Our protest, along
with steel and auto workers, is a cry to reindustrialize and reinvest in America, save our industries, our jobs, our auto suppliers and dealers, and our towns. We must be a part of a cadre of inspired workers, taxpayers and communities who want bailouts and loans linked to reinvesting in America. We need an even playing field so we can be in fair competition with our global competitors.
ESSENCE.COM: What mistakes have the Obama administration made in its handling of the automotive industry bailout?
JACKSON: The American automotive industry has gone from $15 million units down to $9 million in part because the global playing field isn't even. Our government is forcing labor contracts to be renegotiated but not trade agreements. I was in Malaysia a few weeks ago where they make BMWs. The maximum a person working in the BMW factory makes is $500 a month. Not only are their wages low, but the tariffs are so high, so we can't get our companies into those countries. We have to completely reassess this. Plus, I think the administration focused too much on stimulus and not enough on countering the impact of the hemorrhage.
ESSENCE.COM: Do you really think the government has done more to help the banking industry better than the automotive industry?
JACKSON: They've given the banks more money than they've even asked for, but yet when Chrysler is forced into bankruptcy, no one sees that it causes whole towns to close down with 600,000 jobs lost in a month; 2.2 million homes are in foreclosure and there's $95 billion a year in student loan dept. If you're in a car accident and your aorta is bleeding out, the doctors stop the hemorrhage before they give you a transfusion; otherwise you're not stopping the bleeding. The bankers are being stimulated and the auto workers continue to get hemorrhaged out the back door.
ESSENCE.COM: Don't you think the crisis in the auto industry is partially also a result of corruption and mismanagement?
JACKSON: There may have been some of that but we know that the automotive companies are asking for a loan, not for a bailout. They want a loan so they can restructure. You can turn around bank paper in a month, but a new line of cars takes 18 months to develop. We need to focus on blue collar workers. There are on average 60 to 100 workers in a dealership. So, when GM is forced to shut down 3,000 dealerships, all those workers who buy homes, whose kids are in college, who buy clothes and who buy cars lose out.
ESSENCE.COM: So, what's the solution?
JACKSON: We would do well to restructure both the banking and automotive industries. There should be smaller, more manageable banks so they are targeted at student loans, targeted at rural lending for farm loans, and for urban communities. We need banks that are too small to fail.
ESSENCE.COM: How do you think the Obama administration has done so far?
JACKSON: There's a good mood in the country. He's put a good image and brought hope and vitality but we still don't know the long-term impact of these economic policies. It's impossible to give him a grade in the middle of the semester. All I see is lots of stimulus, but plants are closing, jobs are leaving, homes are being lost and student debt is rising. I'm anxious to see how he plans to stop the hemorrhaging, because right now it's devastating.
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