Married life ain't hard when you got a union card, A union man has a happy life when he's got a union wife.- ``The Union Maid'' - Woody Guthrie (1940)
DETROIT -- Those were the days, my friend, we thought they'd never end. Unions were on the march, and the marching songs were grand, especially here, home of the United Auto Workers. Recently, the UAW has been retreating, crippled by economic forces beyond its control -- and by its past successes in winning benefits that companies can no longer afford as they compete with foreign manufacturers in America who do not have unionized workers and the legacy costs of union retirees.
Soon a quietly angry UAW man, whom most Americans have never heard of, will be heard from. Ron Gettelfinger takes strenuous exception to the idea that he has America's most unenviable job. He enjoys getting to the office early -- before the Solidarity House cafeteria opens at 6:30 a.m. But as head of the UAW he had a wrenching 2006 and this year he must negotiate new contracts with General Motors, Ford and Chrysler. He will not be negotiating from strength. But, then, neither will they.
A generally soft-spoken man, he has been a union man since 1964, when he signed on as a chassis line repairman at a Ford plant in Kentucky, making pickup trucks. There he participated in resolving productivity and quality issues that had Ford contemplating closure of the plant.
Today Ford has announced closings of 16 plants. It has hocked the rest, using almost all its assets -- including even the blue oval logo -- as collateral for $23 billion it has borrowed for a two-year dash to profitability. Much of that cash will pay for the buyouts -- worth up to $140,000 apiece -- that have been accepted by almost half of the company's UAW workers, who at the beginning of last year numbered 83,000.
The UAW says its concessions amount to $3 billion of Ford's $5 billion annual reductions in fixed costs. There also have been roughly 34,000 buyouts at GM, where UAW concessions ($3 billion in health care, $3 billion in work force attrition) account for two-thirds of the company's $9 billion annual reduction of fixed costs. The UAW notes that although Canadian autoworkers are unionized, GM spends $1,000 per car less on health care on cars it manufactures in Ontario because there government pays those costs.