If there are operational efficiencies to be gained from the outsourcing, as BMW contends, the firm presumably expects them to translate into higher profits, but it won't be sharing the money with the warehouse workers. Among the most likely beneficiaries are its shareholders — maybe via another dividend boost on top of the $950-million raise the company gave them out of its $4.7-billion profit last year.
BMW's defenders will point out that the company has a perfect legal right to outsource any jobs it wishes. Fair enough. Yet by the same token, American taxpayers had a perfect legal right to tell BMW to drop dead when the firm's credit arm asked the Federal Reserve for a low-interest $3.6-billion loan during the 2008 financial crisis. BMW got the money then because U.S. policymakers saw a larger issue at stake: saving the economy from going over a cliff. Just as there's a larger issue involved at Ontario, which is saving the American middle class from going over the same cliff.
The Ontario union, Teamsters Local 495, got Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Reps. Joe Baca (D-Rialto) and Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove) to write painfully polite letters to Jim O'Donnell, chairman of BMW North America, asking him to reconsider. When I say that's the least they could do, I'm talking literally — it's the very least. How about hauling him before a televised hearing and having him balance out a $3.6-billion taxpayer loan with the firing of 70 American workers? The company surely wouldn't characterize its federal loan as charity, but neither is maintaining its parts distribution workers on a living wage.
It's fashionable to observe today that the loyalty the BMW workers gave their employer was naive; complain to manufacturing CEOs about their remorseless hollowing out of middle-class livelihoods to maintain payouts to shareholders, and the answer you get is that this is merely the way of our hyper-competitive modern world. Nothing personal; it's the tyranny of the marketplace.
Yet what gives BMW the freedom to convert good American middle-class jobs into low-wage piecework is the evaporation of American workers' power of collective action. The labor lawyer and writer Thomas Geoghegan contends that BMW could never outsource union jobs like this in its home country, Germany, where union solidarity extending from the professional staff down to the shop floor would stomp the living daylights out of the very idea. "Foreign companies know there's no solidarity here," he says.
On Monday, the Fourth of July, Americans will gather to celebrate the overthrow of tyranny. But the ease with which we allow corporate employers to impoverish their loyal workers should make us pause under the fireworks and think about how over the ensuing 235 years we've simply substituted one set of tyrants for another, the new ones immeasurably more heartless and bloodthirsty than the ones we shed.
Michael Hiltzik's column appears Sundays and Wednesdays. Reach him at email@example.com, read past columns at latimes.com/hiltzik, check out facebook.com/hiltzik and follow @latimeshiltzik on Twitter.