Gettelfinger, and odd jobs

I have no particular fondness for the United Auto Workers, though I will tell you up front that the last UAW-built car I bought — a Mazda 626, assembled in Flat Rock, Michigan with about two-thirds domestic parts — was the single most reliable vehicle I’ve ever driven: in 55,000 miles there were a total of three unscheduled repairs, and two of them (a wiper blade, to replace one bent by a vandal, and a windshield, to replace one cracked by a random rock) clearly weren’t the fault of any aspect of the manufacturing process. (And the third, the adjustment knob on the driver’s seat, could perhaps be attributed to the forces exerted on it by the driver’s fat ass.) Pity they can’t make these things deer-proof.

So I don’t have a lot of sympathy for the notion that the current woes of the American auto industry are entirely the fault of the UAW and President Ron Gettelfinger and their roughly $25-an-hour price premium over the nonunion guys who work for Toyota and Hyundai and such. Yes, they’re going to have to make some concessions during the current round of negotiations, but as Frank Williams writes in The Truth about Cars, “the crucial adjustments must come from management”:

They can try to lay blame wherever they want, but the union didn’t approve the lackluster designs that have been rolling out of Detroit for years. The union’s not responsible for badge-engineered product planning. The union didn’t fill the executive suites with yes men (and women) who will kiss whatever they have to kiss to keep their jobs. And the union had nothing to do with putting beancounters in charge instead of engineers.

Bottom line: labor costs have zero impact on what cars consumers decide to buy. You could argue that an extra grand here and there — taken out of direct costs and plowed back into new vehicles — would make The Big 2.8’s vehicles more competitive. Given the failure of heavily discounted domestic product to strike back against the Toyotas of the world, you could make an equally compelling case that lowering the domestics’ production costs wouldn’t have any impact on the end result and, thus, U.S. consumers’ choices.

The UAW could work for free and it wouldn’t make any difference, if what they’re building is seen as More of the Same Old Crap. There are a few folks in Detroit boardrooms who understand this. How likely is it that these are the same folks having to negotiate with the union?





2 comments

  1. Jeff Shaw »

    8 August 2007 · 7:26 pm

    Extremely good points you make. I’m not into cars as jewelry – I’m a practical Timex kindof guy now. [Although I confess, back in the day I bought a white 1983 Datsun 280zx Turbo, fully loaded, red leather interior, T-tops, and it was the awesomest car I ever owned. It even had the Turbo tail light kit.]

    I have an American “piece of crap” 1996 Chevy Corsica, with 175,000 miles on it. I bought it a year old, and paid $7500.00. It’s been in the shop for repairs 4-5 times in 10 years. It’s paid for, and gives me, and mostly my wife, non-stop “transportation.” It ain’t no Lexus, and the interior is starting to fall apart, but it does what it is supposed to do.

    I wouldn’t necessarily call it a piece of crap, but it is American and they left the style completely off of it at the factory. I have to say some style would be cool.

    I change the oil every 3k miles. It’s been to the Cali Coast and back once.

    I’m probably going to buy a Toyota next time – they look better.

  2. CGHill »

    8 August 2007 · 7:44 pm

    “Pieces of crap” die long before 175,000 miles. Then again, I suspect few Corsicas (or sister Berettas) got regular maintenance.

    Buying a year old, of course, is almost always a good idea: someone else has eaten a rather hefty proportion of the depreciation, and you still have most of the warranty left. A coworker traded in her Chevy last week on an ’06 Hyundai Sonata, and it’s sharp.

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