Our driven future

Happy Halloween, comrades. This is my favorite holiday, or would be if it didn't take so much energy to get those razor blades precisely into the dead center of the apple. Calculating the exact dosage of rat poison to put in the center of that chocolate bar is harder too, since today's kids are fatter.

But holidays really are all about tradition, and conservatives like me love tradition, as does Detroit, where our ancestral rites revolve around cars, or did until a few years ago. Yes, there is still a domestic auto industry, and we still need it. However, it has shrunk about as much as our waistlines have expanded.

What everyone needs to know is that the auto industry the baby boomers were born into isn't coming back. You might have thought everyone knew that already, but I am continually surprised by people who don't. Last week, workers at what remains of the Chrysler Corporation narrowly ratified their new contract.

Looked at from a traditional union standpoint, it was a horrible deal. It sets up a two-tiered wage system, which means some new workers will be paid half as much as those there now. This is the sort of thing unions, especially the United Auto Workers, have always fought hard to prevent.

Now, they have no choice, and they know it. Doug Fraser himself told me so, and there is no living union leader I respect more.

"Chrysler has to pay wages competitive with the parts suppliers," he told me. Though he will be 91 in December, he still follows events closely. Fraser ran the UAW back when Chrysler almost went out of business and had to be bailed out with federal loan guarantees; later, he became the first union leader to sit on the Chrysler board.

After that, of course, Chrysler was sold to a German firm, and then spat back out again earlier this year. Now it is owned by a mysterious private equity firm called Cerberus Capital Management, which took it off the stock exchange.

Now that Chrysler has been taken private, the owners could break it apart, sell pieces off, close down plants, make the workers wear chenille uniforms, or rename the company the Allegheny Astronauts, if they wanted to.

The contract they did sign includes a number of other givebacks and concessions, and, as at General Motors, transfer of retiree health care obligations to the union. The company will give the UAW money to do this — billions — but not nearly as much as, under current rules, all that health care will cost over time.

If you see reduced benefits coming, you get it. Nevertheless, after a talk I gave a few days ago, a man came up and asked if this meant "Chrysler would be back." I was puzzled. "Say again?" I said. "Como? What you mean?"

"Do you think Chrysler can be as big as it was in the 1960s?" I looked at him. Chrysler, in a best-case scenario, I told him, would most likely be smaller than it is today a few years from now. The question is whether it can survive at all.

I realized, however, that I was not really an expert on the industry, so I talked to David Cole, who is the expert's expert; He's the chairman of the Center for Automotive Research. Does this new agreement give the automaker what it needs to compete in today's world?

"I don't think so," he said. Not that it wasn't absolutely essential, he added. "They had to have this agreement — they had to get their labor costs under control. They face roughly a $25- to $30-an-hour cost disadvantage with their foreign competitors who are building cars in the United States."

But this deal isn't enough by itself to make Chrysler competitive, he said; they need a merger with a foreign partner. "They are now almost exclusively a North American company," — only 4 to 5 percent of their business is elsewhere.

Chrysler is also relatively weak in cars; they are better off in trucks. Volkswagen, he said, might be an ideal partner.

There are small positive signs; Chrysler announced after the deal was approved that it was investing $366 million in its Jefferson North assembly plant, money that is supposed to "create or retain" as many as 1,400 jobs. (That may be ominous, however, since more than 2,000 people work there now.)

With a Chrysler contract ratified, the focus now turns to Ford, which is in some ways the sickest of all the Not-So-Big Three. Ford desperately needs to get its costs under control, and to get rid of its health care burden. But the vote on the Chrysler contract indicates union members are getting weary of concession after concession. This final round of negotiations may well be the hardest of all.

Eventually, someday, it is possible that the domestic auto industry could stage a comeback. New technologies would help — if they develop them here first.

Their best hope may be figuring out a way to break our dependence on oil. David Sandalow's new book Freedom From Oil (McGraw Hill; $26.95) has some intriguing ideas about this. But it is worth remembering that for years the big automakers tried hard to kill technologies that would provide an alternative to oil. (See the movie — if you can find it — Who Killed the Electric Car?)

What a bad boy am I: Every time I take one of my gentle loving swipes at some two-bit right-wing politician like Mikey Bishop or the pink pig man, I am assailed by pious little conservatives who tut-tut about "ad hominem attacks."

The fact that most of them would line up to drink Ann Coulter's bath water makes this especially amusing. Coulter, whose Adam's apple is bigger than Wilt Chamberlain's, is a scary woman who seems to have misplaced that brochure about when cocktail dresses are inappropriate. She makes up for it by trying to be Joe McCarthy in drag. My guess is she doesn't know Roy Cohn is dead.

Recently I got lectured by a little red ideologue, a person who said his or her name was Chetly Zarko. I thought that was a comic book name, and all the Zarkos I have met were crazy Ukrainians. I told Zark Vader I knew he was a secret follower of Simon Petlura, the 1920s Ukrainian bandit leader, and had moved allegiance to Leon of the Pink Pig in a clear case of Freudian transference.

Someone who was aware of the outside world would have grokked that I was being gonzo, and giggled. Not old Chetly. That prompted a rash of blog denunciations of me as a racist and a sexist not worthy of being at the American Pork Producers Convention. Suddenly, I realized what this meant; the right wing subconsciously knows it is doomed — at least for now.

I suspect P.J. O'Rourke became a Republican because, back in the 1970s and '80s, liberals with a sense of humor were few indeed. Most looked like they fantasized about Jimmy Carter and Eleanor Roosevelt. Now times have changed.

Granted, I suspect if I had to defend the party of Dubya, Mark Foley and the senator from the airport toilet, I might not be chuckling myself. But I want to apologize. For that comment about Eleanor Roosevelt, that is, and I promise to send a modest contribution to the Petlura memorial in downtown Poltava.

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