DETROIT -- Steve Miller's enemies say he is out to destroy the middle class and enrich his top executives. Backers of Delphi Corp.'s plain-talking CEO say he is a smart pragmatist bringing financial sanity to an industry that badly needs restructuring.
Whichever side is right, one thing is sure. The Delphi bankruptcy protection case has grabbed the nation's attention in a big way. The collapse of the world's second-largest auto supplier offers a riveting case study in the plight of U.S. industry.
Pundits are having a field day. Conservative columnist George F. Will harrumphed in a Washington Post column last month that the defined benefits Delphi offers its workers is Detroit's version of the welfare state. And Will says it has reached its day of reckoning.
Newspaper editorialists across the country have lamented the potential loss of middle class manufacturing wages. The New York Times bludgeoned Delphi for approving $90 million in potential "retention" bonuses to its management.
And the rhetoric only got hotter last week.
The UAW and five other unions that represent 34,000 U.S. hourly workers at Delphi rejected Delphi's latest offer, calling it "insulting." The concession plan calls for cutting 24,000 jobs and setting a production wage of about $12.50 an hour. UAW workers now earn an average of $27 an hour, plus about $37 more in benefits.
"This fight is not just about 34,000 workers; what's at stake here is the survival of the middle class," said Henry Reichard, chairman of the International Union of Electronic, Electrical, Salaried, Machine and Furniture Workers/Communications Workers of America. The union represents 8,500 hourly Delphi workers.
Miller, a 64-year-old workout specialist who has run Delphi since June, says he will ask the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in New York by year end to terminate labor agreements if concessions aren't forthcoming.
Delphi put its U.S. operations in Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on Oct. 8.