Noise, Vibration Harshness: The United Auto Workers Union

Did the union put gm in the ditch? Its crimes, real and imagined.

One thing’s become clear during Detroit’s recent unpleasantness: just how much some people hate the United Auto Workers.

Union-bashing is a time-honored tradition in the United States, but to listen to these folks tell it, were it not for the UAW, the Big Three would still be Big and Rick Wagoner would still be holed up in the Renaissance Center, only he’d be gazing down at solar-powered Pontiacs on the street. The closest Barack Obama would have ever gotten to General Motors would be the back seat of his new bulletproof Cadillac prez-mobile.

Change, when it presents in the form of disaster, always causes peoples’ cups to runneth over, so all the harsh rhetoric is forgiven, even if blaming the union for GM’s predicament is analogous to hating the New York Yankees but loving George Steinbrenner.

Not even Maximum Bob Lutz on his worst commandos-gone-wild kind of day would suggest it, yet the idea that the workers ruined everything has considerable currency on the airwaves, particularly right-wing talk radio, where the very word “autoworker” elicits instant ridicule of the type normally reserved for Nancy Pelosi, Whoopi Goldberg, and latte-sipping, Lancia Fulvia–driving, auto-column-writing… er, oh, never mind.

How do we know this blame-the-union thing is nuts? By reasoning backward. Remember, the union was there, doing its union thing, while the companies enjoyed more than half a century of blissful blue-chip profitability, give or take a few quarters. So, what happened? Did the union suddenly get greedy, forcing America’s largest industrial corporation into bankruptcy?

Or did the dirty deed occur when the UAW stood agreeably by as two-thirds of its membership – a million workers – got downsized out of existence, beginning with the 1970s oil shortages? Was it when the UAW voluntarily agreed in 2007 to massive cuts in health care and pension funds, so that the Motor City moguls might live free a little longer?

Is it today, when autoworkers are agreeing to massive downgrades in everything that means anything, in exchange for a single seat on GM’s thirteen-member board, along with 17.5 percent of the shares in a bankrupt behemoth whose most exciting new car is a muscle-bound machine that seats two comfortably and gets 15 mpg in burnout-free mixed-use driving? I’m speaking of the 2010 Chevy Camaro SS, 3860 pounds of fun, parked out front as I write. Bitchin’, to be sure, but largely irrelevant to GM’s business at hand.

People hate to see others get things for free, and the media-fueled sense that some people are getting one over on the rest of us seems to be at the core of much UAW hatred. But I don’t see how you can begrudge the line-working guy or gal the $60,000 they might take home, after overtime. I don’t see where the ability to maybe take their family out to dinner once in a while, or perhaps send a child to college, hurts me, the company, or the product they’re building.

Sure, another worker somewhere might make less than a GM worker. But GM agreed to pay his wages and benefits, presumably because GM figured it could afford to.

The highly paid autoworker is to be congratulated, just as GM chairman Rick Wagoner should have been in 2007, when he received a 41 percent raise in his compensation, to $14.4 million, after his company lost 53 percent of its share value in 2005, followed by a 17 percent drop in 2007. That was just some of the $63 million that GM paid him since 1992. And this was all before he accepted a $20 million retirement package after getting fired by no less than the president of the United States. So, if no one’s said it yet, let me be the first: Nice going, Ranger Rick!

One doesn’t excuse union excess. Welding soda cans inside body panels so as to drive customers and the company nuts, like some workers used to do, is so not cool. Smashing windshields of cars before they make it out of the plant is unmistakably hostile. Nor am I here to defend jobs banks, staffing rules, or 101 other things that are detrimental to efficient production and the bottom line.

But paying for anything is detrimental to the bottom line. Health care, sick time, company bathrooms – everything costs money. Where do you draw the line? Bathrooms OK; middle-class wage not?

Critics say that the UAW is grabbing power, but nothing could be further from the truth. Union leaders don’t want to run GM – they don’t even want to take a critical look at the underlying strategies of what is now their own business, content to keep their noses out of decision-making beyond the shop floor and happy to parrot the companies’ views on all the great issues of the day. For this I blame UAW leadership wholeheartedly.

It will surprise many to learn that the UAW helped fund the very first Earth Day, in 1970. But by 1971, things had changed. Union president Walter Reuther, a supporter of numerous progressive causes in the 1960s (women’s rights and environmentalism being just two), had died in a plane crash, and new union leadership told organizers of the environmental happening that they wanted out. Ever since, the union has lined up with management to oppose safety, emissions, and fuel economy requirements.

I interviewed the late Steve Yokich, then UAW president, almost ten years ago. When I suggested that Detroit might be putting too many eggs in one basket with its utter devotion to SUVs at the expense of passenger car development and asked if the union might take a position in favor of more economical cars, he started screaming at me.

The UAW hasn’t been thinking outside the box for the longest time, and it’s not likely to start now, announcing recently that Steve Girsky will fill its seat on the GM board. Girsky is undoubtedly smart. But he’s also a consummate Wall Street insider, having worked for Morgan Stanley, which, as recently as 2002, advised investors to “Look for the union label – and run the other way.” In fact, the House of Morgan has been a controlling force in GM since the last days of Billy Durant, and it was an outspoken antiunion voice back in the 1930s, when some of the very first UAW members were getting shot in the back by company goons.

Times change, and yet it’s hard to imagine that Girsky’s the fellow to stand up to all those who would do the same-same, when it’s clearly not working. They might as well have hired George Steinbrenner.

Written by: Jamie Kitman
Illustration by: Tim Marrs