One of the sticking points in the negotiations for the bailout of the Big Three has been the question of how much more the United Auto Workers (UAW) should give up to save at least two of America’s auto companies.
Clearly, more must be sacrificed to make the companies competitive with the foreign transplants and the other auto imports into the North American market. The substantial differential in the overall compensation package-wages, benefits, vacation, retirement, work rules and the like-cannot remain if, say, GM is to survive as anything other than a ward of the federal government. This is a hard truth, one that is painful to embrace absent the sharp lash of necessity.
My own personal UAW story involves an appeal of a denial of a permit to build a pole barn on a wetland in Michigan. I was working in the state environmental agency on Great Lakes issues at the time, the late-1990s. Since I was an attorney and had run regulatory programs in my home state of Missouri, I was asked to help clear up a backlog of cases through mediation and, hopefully, settlement without recourse to costly, full-blown administrative hearings complete with lawyers, court reporters, further appeals and aggravation for all involved.
One day I traveled to northern Michigan, to the field office in Gaylord, I think, about two-thirds of the way up the Lower Peninsula, the mitt of Michigan so to speak, to meet with the person appealing his permit denial.
As it turned out, the fellow appealing the unfavorable decision was from southeast Michigan, just outside of Detroit. He walked into the room accompanied by a GM legal insurance lawyer, with his wife. His four kids were waiting outside in his 30-foot Suburban.
He was a gregarious, big fellow, with muscular arms and a barrel chest. He sported a GM baseball cap and a T-shirt with UAW on it. Or maybe it was the reverse.
In any event, he was a very nice guy, a family man, which immediately put him on my good side. He had a place or cottage “up north,” which everyone in Michigan, Wisconsin (including my wife) and Minnesota has, usually handed down through the generations. Seasonal migrations “up north” are rivaled only by the mass migration to Florida at spring break in that part of the country.
This fellow wanted to build this barn at his cottage, his home away from home.
“Mr. Mehan, I love the environment; but I have to build this barn,” he said after we got through the pleasantries and down to business. “I own a jet ski, a party barge, a snow mobile and a boat. I can’t leave them out through the winter, and I don’t want to haul them back and forth each year.”
What came of the mediation totally escapes my memory, but I vividly recall thinking about the lawyer, the wife, the four kids, the Suburban, the jet skis, the boat, the snow mobile, the party barge, and the fact this guy probably worked hard on an assembly line.
“Is this a great country or what?” was my first thought.
My second was: “This can’t last — can it?”
For decades people who worked for the Big Three were not working-class but definitely members of the middle class, without the tie or gray flannel suit. You could quit high school, if you were so inclined, and get a really well-paying job working on the lines at Ford, Chrysler and GM, although hard overtime was assumed. The pay-off was great wages, tremendous benefits, a lot of vacation and a wonderful retirement. It was not just a living wage, but a very robust and comprehensive compensation package. An autoworker could support a good-sized family without his wife having to take a job outside the home unless she wanted to.
It was an exceptional set of circumstances, not duplicated in many other industries or other parts of the country.
The Big Three and the UAW no longer dominate even our domestic market anymore. They carry heavy legacy costs, too many dealerships and old ways of thinking that hobble them in a global economy, Darwinian in its ruthless application of “creative destruction.” They are struggling to adapt their old modes of labor and production to the grease-lightning speed and ever-changing configurations of an unforgiving marketplace.
My heart goes out to Michigan, my adopted state.