Autoworkers Forced to Take Concessions in Industry Bailout
President George W. Bush announced on Dec. 19 a $17.4 billion bridge loan for General Motors and Chrysler, a day after he hinted that the companies could be forced into "orderly" bankruptcy.
Autoworkers, who advocated for short-term aid to the auto industry's crisis, bristled at the conditions attached to the loan. The Bush administration's requirements mirror demands from anti-union Republicans who torpedoed congressional action last week. They would decimate United Auto Workers contracts and place retiree health care funds into company stock.
The plan hinges on a demand that UAW autoworker wages and work rules become "competitive" with wages and work rules in foreign-owned, nonunion transplant factories in the South.
Lost in the discussion, autoworkers said, is any recognition that wages and benefits are less than 10 percent of the cost of a vehicle and can't pull the Big Three back to profitability.
"We've already taken concessions to help the industry become viable," said Brett Talbot-Ward, a UAW Local 1700 member, who works at Chrysler's Sterling Heights [Mich.] assembly plant. "Why are they asking for more from us, when there are all sorts of other costs in the vehicle-production process, much less the CEO pay, that haven't even factored into the debate?"
Bush's terms will eliminate the jobs bank, a concession the UAW signaled it would accept two weeks ago. The program gives laid-off workers income and sends them into communities to provide public services. Foreign-owned auto firms have similar programs and often use production downtime to train workers.
"The jobs bank was our safety net," Talbot-Ward said. "That in and of itself is a huge sacrifice, when we know that there will be a huge amount of safety needed."
Chrysler announced plans this week to suspend all production for a month, two weeks longer than its usual holiday break.
The bridge loan calls for auto retirees to sink half of their retiree health care fund, the UAW-administered Voluntary Employee Beneficiary Association, into company stock. Autoworkers questioned the wisdom of putting the remaining VEBA payments into stock, having watched GM's stock plunge from $29 a share in February to $2.79 in November.
"It's not worth the paper it's printed on," said Tom Brown, a member of UAW Local 600, who works at the Ford Dearborn [Mich.] Truck Plant. "They're going to attack the retirees badly on this one."
VEBA began as an underfunded vehicle: financial analysts predicted at its outset that General Motors was only willing or able to offer less than $35 billion of the estimated $50 billion that it owes retired workers.
The underfunding could lead to a simple, grim arithmetic: each dollar shortchanged translates into a dollar that can't be spent on health care premiums, co-pays, deductibles or quality of care. Under VEBA, the remaining costs of maintaining health care benefits will have to be shifted back to the workers.
"I don't think the rank-and-file will go for it -- to bring our wages down, to put our benefits into (company) stock -- that'll be too risky," said Tony Browning, UAW Local 1700 member at Chrysler's Sterling Heights Assembly.
Browning said that his fellow union members are well aware that nonunion autoworkers make similar wages, and predicted that UAW leaders will have a tough sell persuading workers to take yet another round of concessions.
Relentless Attacks on Union
The deal proves Bush is ready to extract from autoworkers what Republican senators were unable to secure last week when they blocked a $14 billion loan package for the industry over demands to cut wages and benefits for unionized autoworkers and retirees.
Republicans refused to hand over the loan without promises of even more UAW concessions. Republicans, apparently expert enough about autos to renegotiate contracts in a matter of hours, blamed the UAW for refusing to drive down wages to parity with nonunion, foreign-owned auto facilities in the South by next year.
Autoworkers, of course, already agreed to similar concessions in November 2007, when they voted up contracts that put starting wages lower than those in nonunion plants. The major cost difference between nonunion and union automakers in the United States is not wages but retiree benefits, particularly health care costs. In demanding that the UAW reduce costs to the automakers, the Republicans were insisting that more than a million retirees -- 40 percent of whom are not yet eligible for Medicare -- put their health care coverage at risk.
The UAW made a last-ditch effort to save the bridge loan and placate viciously anti-union Southern senators. That wasn't enough for Republicans, who -- along with four Democrats -- voted down the bill.
"It's part of the right-wing agenda to do away with unions or to severely cripple any kind of labor struggle in this country," Talbot-Ward said. "Or maybe it's a little payback for union support of the Obama campaign."
Fast disappearing is an era when workers on assembly lines can afford to buy the vehicles they make. When the UAW agreed to a midcontract opener in 2005, and a 2007 agreement that lowered new-hire wages to $14.50 an hour, the union struggled to squeak out approval from an angry (and increasingly financially unstable) membership.
Blaming the Workers
UAW President Ron Gettelfinger later said his decision to negotiate with a lone Republican senator was a mistake, especially when the whole pantomime seemed like a warm-up act for Republican opposition to the card-check bill, the Employee Free Choice Act. But the administration's insistence on linking the bridge loan to wage cuts angered autoworkers even more.
Jim Theisen, a member of UAW Local 212, who joined the autoworker caravan to Washington, said the caravan brought the message to Capitol Hill that rank-and-file wages aren't the industry's problem, and that cutting union wages harms everyone.
"Our Southern brothers and sisters don't get $24 an hour out of the kindness of the auto owners' hearts," he said. "If there wasn't a union in the North, they'd be getting $10 an hour."