Farewell to all that

News flash: Detroit (AP) — Oct. 19, 1915 — Officials of the General Buggy Whip Corporation clashed today with the leadership of the United Buggy Whip Workers’ Union.

The UBW protested the company’s announcement of huge cuts in pay and benefits, and threatened to go on strike. But a GB spokesman said the dramatic drop in buggy sales, due to the increasing popularity of the newfangled horseless carriages, make the cutbacks unavoidable.

Both sides dismissed any suggestion that they get together and figure out how to make something else, since the buggy industry was coming to an end.


Yes, comrades, that’s exactly what’s happening.   As you probably know by now, Delphi Corp., General Motors’ main parts supplier, declared bankruptcy more than a week ago, and says that to stay in business, it must cut United Auto Workers’ pay from about $27 an hour to $12 an hour (or less) and slash health care and other benefits as well.

Twelve dollars an hour is, without overtime, slightly less than $25,000 a year. Try feeding your family on that, pal. After apparently sleepwalking for something like a week, Ron Gettelfinger, the head of the UAW, woke up to denounce Delphi’s move as “scare tactics” and cheerfully tell The Detroit News that all this “has definitely solidified the rank-and-file of our union.”

That angered me far more than the tactics of the corporate clowns who run Delphi. They showed how much they care about what the public thinks of them by heavily padding their own severance packages, just in case.

I wouldn’t dream of defending the auto executives. But we should expect better thinking out of those who are supposed to represent the workers.

Does Gettelfinger really think things can go on as they have?

Where does he suppose the hundreds of thousands of auto jobs that have disappeared since the 1970s have gone? Does the UAW know how Delphi can maintain the current pay levels and still end up making money?

Naturally, Gettelfinger hasn’t a clue.

We need more than a clue; we need new solutions, now. Everybody does.

Pay attention. Your welfare is at stake here, even if you never touch a fender for a living. What Delphi is trying to do is even huger than it looks. Delphi used to be part of General Motors, before it was spun off.

For decades, the auto industry has operated under a concept called “pattern bargaining,” in which contracts between the carmakers and the UAW pretty much mirror each other.

Delphi says it needs to slash worker pay by a bigger margin than was common even in the Great Depression. They declared bankruptcy, I’m sure, at least partly because even if the union doesn’t agree, they may be able to get a judge to allow them to impose such conditions.

They aren’t looking out for their workers. But the harsh reality is that they have little choice — they’re losing tons of money. Some think they hoped their corporate parent, GM, would bail them out.

But GM is on the rocks too, having lost more than $4 billion on its North American operations so far this year. Ford is also losing money.

DaimlerChrysler, which the taxpayers bailed out when it was shipwrecked in 1979, is now a German company. Don’t you think that when the time comes — soon — all these other firms will insist on doing the same thing to their UAW workers? What if hundreds of thousands of $65,000 jobs become $25,000 jobs?

Do you think teachers will still be paid a living wage? Do you realize what’s going to happen to all sorts of other businesses in Michigan? What is going to happen to our universities, our public services?

What can we do? Simply, there is no choice. Michigan must come up with a strategy for the future, and we have to do it now. Or we’re doomed.

Last week I had the chance to talk with Dick DeVos, who will be the Republican candidate for governor next year. He was a pleasant man who mouthed platitudes about market forces, or something. Jennifer Granholm has been her usual self, saying she was “angry” and that she was “profoundly disturbed.” She also offered no more solutions than a salamander on a rock.

Comrades, the Titanic is settling low. We need some leadership. We need some ideas, and we need to take some action.

What we need is an emergency summit of the top leadership in this state — union, corporate, academic, political — to figure out what to do; lots more icebergs are looming, some of which I’ve mentioned above.

Mark Gaffney, state president of the AFL-CIO, is more on the ball. He told me on my radio show last week that if present trends continue, that by 2010 or 2012, most autoworkers in this country won’t be members of the UAW.

Though he didn’t say so, and might deny it, he knows perfectly well that if that happens, the automotive union, and probably all private sector unions, are finished. Incidentally, since most of those nonunion plants are elsewhere, Michigan will be finished too, as a major industrial and economic force.

The tragedy is that this doesn’t have to happen.

We have such a concentration of engineering talent and other resources here that we ought to be able to reinvent ourselves. Micki Maynard, a longtime auto writer and Detroit bureau chief for The New York Times, told me last week that even if the old auto industry dies, a new one is likely to center itself here.

But we cannot tie our hopes and mortgage our future only to autos. James Duderstadt, a former president of the University of Michigan, came out last month with an impressive study called “A Road Map to Michigan’s Future.”

“Michigan’s old manufacturing economy is dying, slowly but surely, putting at risk the welfare of millions of citizens in our state in the face of withering competition from an emerging global knowledge economy,” it begins.

“Thus far, our state has been in denial,” he continues. He calls on the state to support education and technological innovation and to come up with “a vision for Michigan tomorrow.” Indeed, he sketches out the beginnings of a plan.

What we need is some sort of huge crash program. To begin with, our governor could summon an emergency high-level conference to decide what immediate steps to take to put this state on the path to survival.

On the other hand, she could go on being angry and seriously disturbed, and her political opponents could go on waiting for “market forces” to ride to the rescue, by which I think they mean they will wake up and it will be 1955 again.

But if we don’t want to do any of that, there is another way.

We could try to reopen the copper mines in the Upper Peninsula.

Or maybe making buggy whips again would work, this time around.


Don’t know whether to laugh or cry: The New York Times did a story in which it asked top Administration officials to comment on why Harriett Miers, Dubya’s former White House staff secretary, could conceivably belong on the U.S. Supreme Court. Joshua Bolton, now director of the Office of Management and Budget, wins the prize for best answer: “She is a very good bowler,” he said. “For someone her size, she actually gets a lot of action out of the pins.”

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]. Hear him weekdays at 1 p.m. on WUOM (91.7 FM or
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