In this morning's Detroit Free Press, Tom Walsh declares that United Auto Workers (UAW) president Ron Gettelfinger had to "flex worker's muscles" by staging a six-hour strikelet against Chrysler. Gettelfinger "felt compelled to deploy the biggest weapon in his arsenal, the strike" to get agreements from GM and Chrysler. Granted, a strike is any unions' ultimate bargaining tool. But get real. I've had doctor's appointments that lasted longer than the Chrysler "strike." Exactly what did the UAW accomplish yesterday– besides costing its members six hours' pay?
When Detroit was king of the American automotive hill, The Big Three were loathe to shut down an assembly line. Factories were churning out cars 24 hours a day; they were making billions by feeding the American public mediocre products based on other mediocre products. So the automakers gave the union pretty much whatever they wanted, just as long as they helped keep the money train on the track and on time.
Then them damned furriners showed up and spoiled the party. Fast forward forty years and everything is turned upside down. The Big Three Minus Twenty Percent are losing money on almost every car they produce in North America. Their "foreign" competitors have invaded their home turf. With the weak dollar, more automakers are threatening to set up operations stateside.
On the union side, UAW membership is the lowest its been in decades, as factories shut down and workers take buyouts. Apparently no one bothered to tell the UAW they no longer have the upper hand. At the UAW's bargaining convention in March, Gettelfinger said they'd fight in whatever way necessary in order to defend their members' pay and benefits, even "if need be, on the picket line."
Perhaps he should have taken Teddy Roosevelt's advice about soft talk and big sticks. After issuing nuclear option threats, Big Ron had no alternative but to call a strike at some time during the negotiations. He had to put his members' money where his mouth was.
So Gettelfinger decided he'd take on GM and call a strike. Industry analysts were all abuzz, speculating how long it would last. The more jaded amongst them wondered how long before GM followed protocol and caved to whatever demands the UAW was making. Two days later it was over.
UAW leadership claims the strikelet broke the logjam with GM and forced their employer to settle on terms favorable to the membership. In reality, shutting down production for two days did GM more good than harm. GM entered September with a 67-day supply of vehicles, most of them 2007 models. The strike gave them most of what they wanted– a two-tier wage system and a health care VEBA. AND it saved them two day's union pay and cleared a bit of inventory. When seen in this perspective, this UAW strike was, at best, a mosquito bite on an elephant's ass.
The six-hour coffee break at Chrysler was even more meaningless. Chrysler had a 72-day supply of vehicles going into September. Six hours didn't even give time for the impact wrenches on the assembly lines to cool down. The details of the agreement aren't available yet, but there's no way the UAW's token tantrum got Cerberus to change their mind on anything.
Ford's next. They had a 68-day supply of vehicles going into September. No question: they're in the worst financial shape of The Big 2.8. The Blue Oval Boyz will be demanding the most back from the union. How will the union respond? Based on performances so far, they'll probably have the workers bow their heads for a moment of silence on the assembly lines, and then capitulate on all fronts (as long as they get some more billions into the plunder-ready health care VEBA).
The Freep's Walsh sings Gettelfinger's praise. He claims Big Ron "is on the verge of doing something … historic, forging the most important UAW contracts since the GM sit-down strikes of 1936 – 37." David Cole from the Center for Automotive Research agrees: "When all this is over we'll look at Ron Gettelfinger and say this is an amazing guy to have pulled all this off."
The only thing Gettelfinger pulled is the wool over his members' eyes. The entire strike scenario was just a way to get them to buy into a contract that gave up a lot more than it gained. By having them walk a picket line, even for a few hours, he convinced them they had a part in making management cry "uncle." They'd look pretty foolish to reject a contract they went on strike to get.
And it worked. Sixty-six percent of GM's UAW workers ratified their new contract. Gettelfinger called the approval a "triumph." He crowed: "we helped protect middle-class manufacturing jobs in communities throughout the United States." Of course, in protecting them, he put their retirees' health care benefits at risk, lowered the wages for many of them and got unenforceable promises of future jobs. That doesn't sound much like a positive strike outcome to me, in either the short or the long-term.