Even back in the good ole days (say, 15 months ago), the UAW was a lightning rod for debate. Now, with the global auto industry pushed to the brink and Detroit 3 automakers literally begging for their lives, the gloves are off.
As the crisis unfolded in recent months, thousands of comments posted on Automotive News Web site either laud the UAW or (more often) castigate it. Most comments are personal and thoughtful. But as debate progresses, the UAW can become more symbolic than real, a shorthand reference in a complicated situation. For a few, the UAW is either a valiant band defending freedoms or a horde of berserkers bent on destroying Detroit.
(Full disclosure here: I grew up in Detroit. My close relatives were both management and labor in the auto biz. I was a UAW member three times during college, twice for suppliers and as an assembly line worker at Fords Wixom, Mich., plant.)
Overnight, one comment cut through the fog to put a human face on the issue. LoriD, a recently laid-off skilled-trades auto worker in Michigan, responded directly to a post from sparky59, a frequent critic of the UAW and what he sees as its feeling of entitlement. Sparky59 expressed no empathy for any UAW member who lost a job.
I really am as stupid as you accuse me of being. I must be, LoriD wrote. I believed it was possible to raise a family and own a modest home even if you were doing a job resulting in dirt under your nails and grease in your hair.
Now, sparky59 was making two points many others have expressed.
As a U.S. taxpayer, he objects to paying for U.S. loans to assist Detroit automakers he figures got themselves into this mess.
If the Detroit 3 wasnt paying COLA, extra unemployment, jobs bank, and all the other things that cost money or reduce productivity, they wouldnt being asking for billions in loans, he wrote. Im only angry that my taxes are bailing out a bunch of spoiled brats that have made more than most every manufacturing worker in the U.S.
LoriD defends wanting to hold on those things if you were fortunate enough to get them, and maybe fight for them a bit if need be.
Then she attacks. How dare you call me lazy, she writes. If her plant hadnt already closed, I'd invite you to follow me around for a shift -- if you could survive that long. Many who thought it would be easy didn't make it till lunch break.
LoriD then describes something a lot of people -- in or out of the auto industry -- can relate to: Her fear at the thought of trying to find another job in this market, pay my bills, keep my small house and support my boys and my disabled husband.
Sparky59s other point is harder to answer. Non-skilled and semi-skilled auto workers shouldnt make more than skilled workers and trade workers all across the country, he writes.
LoriD doesnt directly respond to that. Its a tough issue.
In 30 years of covering the auto industry in at least two dozen countries, I have observed that auto workers are invariably paid more than other workers in their country. Auto companies tell me its worth the cost to get their pick of the local labor force, however much the variance per country.
But this is certainly an issue for consideration. Is a premium appropriate for auto workers? Is it sustainable? Is it fair when taxpayers must bail out auto manufacturers? Considering that virtually every auto-producing country is doing that, or preparing to, its a fair question.
What do you think?