Blaming the workers

Dec 10, 2008 at 12:00 am

Blame the workers. Especially, blame the United Auto Workers. That's what we've been hearing from the talking heads over the last several weeks as our auto industry skidded toward the brink of extinction and politicians debated a bailout.

Over and over again, I've heard people repeat that the trouble was that the average UAW worker costs the auto companies $73 per hour. Nice work if you can get it. Matter of fact, it made me want to pack a lunch bucket and trudge off to Dodge Main. Trouble is, when I checked, I found that this statistic is simply not true.

Unionized autoworkers, at least the relatively few still working, made about $28 an hour last year, according to Ann Arbor's respected Center for Automotive Research. Yes, they do get benefits, and benefits cost money. But how could they rack up another $45 an hour in bennies? The answer is that they don't.

Jonathan Cohn sagely reported in The New Republic how this figure was concocted: By taking the entire cost of health care and pensions for both active employees and retirees and adding it to the average hourly wage. Yes, health care and other benefits do cost the auto companies $42 an hour. But that's because they have so many retirees. General Motors has been around for almost a century. Ford, even longer. Toyota, which didn't open plants here until the 1980s, has very few retirees. Naturally their total labor costs are lower.

Yes, the United Auto Workers union did fight hard to win their workers decent salaries and benefits. (The nerve of those bastards!) Based on their real salaries, longtime autoworkers make about $60,000 a year. When you consider the physical stress and the repetitive motion injuries, that doesn't seem like such a good deal to me. And it is even worse now, since nobody working for the Not-So-Big Three knows if he or she will still have a job in a few months.

Yet life is not always fair. We need to ask the question: Are the unions and the salaries and the benefits paid their members really the reason the auto companies are on their knees?

Harley Shaiken is one of the most knowledgeable labor experts in the country. A Detroit native, he's now a professor at the University of California at Berkeley. I asked him if it's fair to blame the UAW for all, or even some, of the shape the domestic industry is in?

"No, I don't think so," he said. "I think the UAW has played an important role in rebuilding the industry. Were there excesses in the past? Of course. By everyone."

But that's not what has caused the present crisis; the credit crunch resulting from the Wall Street meltdown last September was the catalyst. "The automakers are asking Congress for $34 billion," Shaiken reminded me. "If the entire labor force volunteered to work for free next year, that would save them [only] about $18 billion.

"Of course, labor costs are critical," he explained. "But they aren't decisive in terms of the scope of the current economic meltdown."

Well, what about the so-called "jobs bank," whereby temporarily idled workers would still get paid until new jobs could be found for them?

"It's become the most falsely maligned thing in the industry, and it's gotten a bad rap," Shaiken said. "It was always capped in terms of financial liability for the companies. Ford, for example, was [paying] less than $200 million a year."

What was important about the jobs bank, however, was that it gave workers incentives to come up with laborsaving devices. Even if they cost jobs in the short run, they wouldn't be penalized. The union, however, has signaled it is to suspend the jobs bank, which now involves fewer than 4,000 workers.

But what about other concessions? Has the union been willing to step up and do its part?

"I think it has," Shaiken said. "Entering [UAW] workers at the Big Three are giving up two-thirds of their total compensation. They are being hired at $14 an hour, and at considerably reduced benefits." That is far less than workers at Toyota or Honda. "That hasn't made much of a difference yet, because the auto companies are hiring so few workers," the professor added. "But over time, it certainly will."

Much of what we've heard about unions and their role in the industry is just plain wrong, he argued. "When people think of unions, they think of them as being sort of opposed to improvements in productivity. That simply isn't true."

Yes, there may have been a time when unions were part of the problem. But they get it today. Shaiken cited one recent study that showed that unionized labor forces were, by and large, better in terms of productivity than nonunion workers. In other words, the professor thinks much of what we thought we knew was wrong. ... Not for the first time.

Newspaper update: The latest buzz is that a momentous decision has been made to deliver the Free Press only two or three days a week, soon after the first of the year.

"They would print it and put it in the boxes the other days, but otherwise encourage people to go to the Internet," said a longtime staffer, who seemed to be in a position to know. The paper would be home delivered Thursday and Sunday, and perhaps one other day. Subscribers would be encouraged to turn to the paper's website.

Politics & Prejudices was unable to nail this down further, but it sounded more definite than many of the constant rumors swirling about the fate of one or both Detroit dailies.

My colleague Sandra Svoboda contacted Freep Editor Paul Anger, who offered what can best be described as a "guarded" response: "We're looking at all sorts of things. I think it's pretty safe to say we're going to print a newspaper. "

Pressed to say whether the print version would be scaled back, he said: "I can't really say anything else. We are no different than anybody else in the country, and all of us better be looking at everything. ... This is all a work in progress."

What is not known is what this "work in progress" could mean for the very junior partner in the current Joint Operating Agreement, The Detroit News. It is hard to believe Detroit Newspapers Inc. would continue to run an expensive, seven-day delivery system for the smaller of the two papers. Whatever decision is made, by the way, will be really entirely up to Gannett. Though the Denver-based MediaNews Group owns the Detroit News, under the present deal, which was struck in 2005, Gannett has 95 percent control.

There's even a quaintly bizarre twist to all this; according to a knowledgeable source, the internal code word for all this is "Project Griffon." According to the source, someone in high authority apparently thought that was the name of the ship Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac arrived in when he discovered Detroit on July 24, 1701.

That's a little hard to believe, since a glance at any standard history would show Old Caddy arrived in a canoe. A French ship named the Griffon, however, was the first full-sized sailing ship on the Great Lakes. It set sail Sept. 18, 1679 ... and promptly vanished. Perhaps the Gannettoids who came up with that name for their new adventure were highly subtle intellectuals. Maybe the name indicates that they know that the success or failure of their efforts are still shrouded in mystery. Or maybe they just didn't know experts believe the Griffon plummeted to the bottom. Anyway, I haven't been able to confirm any of this, though someone I trust swears it is all true.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Contact him at [email protected]