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?