Angry UAW Members Lash Out at Southern Senators
The vitriol had been near the surface for weeks as senators from states that house the transplant automakers' factories criticized the Detroit Three for management miscues and bloated UAW labor costs that lawmakers said make them uncompetitive.
But the UAW stopped biting its tongue after Republicans sank a House-passed bill Thursday night that would have loaned $14 billion to cash-poor General Motors Corp. and Chrysler LLC to keep them out of bankruptcy protection. The Bush administration later stepped in and said it was ready to make money available to the automakers, likely from the $700 billion Wall Street bailout program.
Still, autoworkers remain angry with the senators who tried to negotiate wage and benefit concessions from the union, then scuttled the House-passed bill that would have granted the loans and set up a "car czar" to oversee the nearly insolvent companies and get concessions from the union and creditors. Their top targets were Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.; Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., who led negotiations on a compromise; and Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., who has been a vocal critic of the loans.
Kentucky, Tennessee and Alabama all house auto assembly plants from foreign automakers, and union officials contend the senators want to drive UAW wages down so there would be no reason for workers at the foreign plants to join the union.
"They thought perhaps they could have a twofer here maybe: Pierce the heart of organized labor while representing the foreign brands," UAW President Ron Gettelfinger said at a Friday morning news conference in Detroit.
Republicans in several Western states - where unions are often shunned - joined the Southerners in opposition.
But lawmakers and their spokesmen said the criticism is off base. Jonathan Graffeo, Shelby's spokesman on the Senate Banking Committee, said the senator has consistently opposed taxpayer-funded bailouts.
"He opposed the Chrysler bailout in 1979 when there were no foreign auto manufacturers in Alabama, and he opposed the recent $700 billion bailout of the banking industry," Graffeo said.
"Bailouts generally don't work, and this is a huge proposed bailout, and I fear it's just the down payment on more to come next year," Shelby said on the Senate floor Thursday night. "These companies are either already failed or failing, and that's a shame. These aren't the General Motors, Ford and Chrysler I knew."
Corker said the alternative he tried to develop would have provided federal money in exchange for restructuring the companies' debt and making the UAW more competitive in wages with workers at U.S. plants of Japanese competitors.
"Our members wanted to know that the UAW was willing to be competitive," Corker said.
"I basically pleaded with them to give me some language by some date certain that they were competitive with these other companies," Corker said. "That's where it broke down."
Hourly wages for UAW workers at GM factories already are about equal to those paid by Toyota Motor Corp. at its older U.S. factories, according to the companies. GM says the average UAW laborer makes $29.78 per hour, while Toyota - generally viewed as the main competitor of the Detroit Three - says it pays about $30 per hour. But the unionized factories have far higher benefit costs.
The union, GM and Chrysler have contended that the companies have restructured and the UAW has granted concessions that would make them competitive in 2010, but the economy went south this year and forced them into trouble. A third Detroit automaker, Ford Motor Co., asked for loans in case of emergency but says it has enough cash to make it through 2009.
Union officials also accused the senators of retaliating for the UAW's overwhelming support of Democratic candidates in federal races. The union gave $1.9 million to Democrats but only $11,500 to Republicans in the 2008 election cycle.
Many Democrats support the Employee Free Choice Act, which would take away employers' rights to demand a secret ballot on whether workers will join a union. Instead, workers could form unions by getting a majority of employees to sign a card in support of it.
"There's a lot at stake. If Republicans think now they can tarnish labor, it's going to be difficult to pass the Employee Free Choice Act," said Gary Chaison, professor of labor relations at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. "The unions are going to say that a strong labor movement is good for America. One of the things Republicans are trying to show now is that a strong labor movement isn't good for America."
Other union officials joined Gettelfinger to form a chorus of anger and frustration with the senators.
"What this is is the Southern conservative senators trying to destroy the United Auto Workers, trying to destroy unions," said Mike O'Rourke, president of a UAW local at a GM factory in Spring Hill, Tenn., Corker's home state. "It's a sad day in America when the senators turn their back on Main Street."
In an effort to help the auto companies get federal aid, the UAW last week offered to delay company payments into a union-run trust fund that will take over retiree health care costs starting in 2010. It also agreed to end the controversial "jobs bank" program in which laid-off workers get most of their pay and benefits after unemployment pay runs out.
Most Southern U.S. auto plants run by Toyota, Honda Motor Co., Nissan Motor Co., BMW AG, Daimler AG and other manufacturers are nonunion. The UAW has tried numerous times without success to organize workers at the foreign-owned factories.
Toyota spokesman Mike Goss would not comment on the UAW allegations.
As the Detroit Three have declined and ceded market share to the foreign nameplates, the UAW's membership has plummeted 69 percent, from a peak 1.5 million in 1979 to 465,000 at the end of 2007.
Associated Press Writer Ken Thomas in Washington and AP Business Writer Ellen Simon in New York contributed to this report.