The United Auto Workers: Conventional Wisdom
While the United Auto Workers (UAW) were busy plotting their future, The Detroit News ran a Cyber Survey. “Have UAW members given up enough or should auto makers expect more concessions?” As of the time I’m putting electrons to pixels, only 26 percent of the respondents agreed with the ungrammatical assertion “there’s been enough concessions.” The other 74 percent voted that the “UAW needs to make more concessions.” It’s not too promising when the home town crowd starts turning against you. But does it really matter?
Admittedly, on-line surveys are far from statistically significant. However, the “put your hands up for Detroit” results are a clarion call to the UAW. The days when the union could demand the sun and get the moon are gone. Even a brief look at the automakers’ balance sheets indicates that they can no longer afford to keep idle workers on the payroll, or pay for full time employees who work on a part-time basis, or carry enormous “legacy costs,” or even keep pace with rising health care costs.
Yet the UAW is like Oliver Twist on an endless loop; they keep asking for more. The speeches and 103-page Resolution approved at their collective bargaining convention all indicate they’re not willing to give many (any?) concessions to their employers. In fact, the UAW wants MORE benefits and job guarantees.
Saber rattling? Don’t be so sure. The UAW doesn’t seem to grasp the simple concept that they’re on the verge of pricing themselves out of a job. The organization is deeply infused with a sense of entitlement, a “Don’t mess with us, we ARE the company” credo that informs everything they do– even if it threatens to take them all the way to the unemployment line.
UAW President Ron Gettelfinger signalled that his union brothers and sisters are ready, willing and able ($847m strike fund and counting) to down tools should their employers get stroppy. Even though Big Ron’s got a look at the automakers' books, he doesn’t believe The Big 2.5 are on the ropes. The fact that Ford and GM have recently topped-up their checking accounts, that investment bankers are clamoring to buy Chrysler, merely reaffirms the UAW's bottom line: where there’s a contract, there’s a way.
Bankruptcy? Fuhgeddaboutit. Gettelfinger vehemently denounced Delphi for trying to use bankruptcy to break their union contracts. Yet Chapter 11 awaits any of the The Big 2.5, should their unionized work force choose to strike. Make that all. If any one of the domestics collapses, it will cause a chain reaction that will end the American auto industry as we know it.
Of course, the automakers aren’t innocent victims in any of this. No matter what you’ve heard, the paradigm has not changed. The automakers still threaten to close plants or withhold new cars from particular plants, using new models and continued employment as hostages to get what they want from the UAW. The workers at GM’s Lordstown, Ohio plant are sweating bullets right now.
What's more, auto company executives are equally mired in the entitlement mentality. According to Ron Tadross at Banc of America Securities, the base salary of the average GM, Ford, or Chrysler vice president is about the same as the total compensation for the CEO of Toyota (just under $1M). Add in the bonuses and stock packages (regardless of how well the company did) and Detroit’s top dogs are making 40 to 50 times as much as the workers they say they can no longer afford.
When was the last time you heard any of these executives offering to take a pay cut or refusing a bonus to preserve their company’s future?
You want to know why the Cadillac DTS, Lincoln Town Car and Chrysler Aspen’s interiors look and feel cheaper than a $17K Honda? Why Motown’s motors lag behind in fuel economy and alternative propulsion? Detroit’s overheads are so high, their bureaucracy so stratified and stultified, that they simply can’t afford to produce what the market demands at a price that the market expects. That’s why the American auto industry, once known for technological innovation and trend setting, is playing a perpetual game of follow-the-leader.
And so the UAW and the Detroit-based automakers continue to squabble like a couple of four-year-olds, each threatening to knock down the other’s blocks and go home. The first concession both sides should make is to reality. The reality is that the old ways no longer work. Those of us on the outside realize this, from top-flight industry analysts all the way down to the poor sap on the dealer floor, trying to sell lackluster domestics against the class leading transplants. But there is no indication whatsoever that the UAW, GM, Ford and Chrysler “get it.”
A wake-up call is on its way, and it ain’t gonna be pretty.
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