George Will

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.

But now Gettelfinger insists, ``You can't cut your way to profitability," and he says the UAW is ready to dig in its heels. He says the UAW adds value to members' lives by limiting subtractions -- damages done by attrition and bankruptcy. In September the UAW stopped negotiating concessions with Chrysler because it considered the company's problems less than severe, but is now re-examining the company's condition.

Gettelfinger resents workers paying the price of management blunders, one of which, he says, was Ford's mismanagement of the Taurus model, the last of which rolled off the line in October. He says Taurus would have had ``years of life left'' if Ford had constantly refined it, as Toyota has done with the Camry.

``Obscene" is Gettelfinger's description of executives' pay and retirement protections at Delphi, the giant auto parts manufacturer that entered bankruptcy protection in 2005. He believes bankruptcy has become a management tool by which companies shred labor contracts, and he warns that if Delphi tries to void its contract with the UAW, that ``will be the biggest mistake they ever made."

But more than 14,000 of Delphi's 24,000 UAW employees have accepted early retirement or buyout offers. Furthermore, the UAW has swallowed hard and accepted a two-tier wage system -- lower wages ($14 an hour rather than $27) for new hires.

Ford, GM and Chrysler might seek such wage systems in the coming contract negotiations. The UAW allowed Chrysler to hire temporary workers -- $18 an hour; they can be fired at any time; they are not eligible for the jobs bank -- at its Belvidere, Ill., plant.

The jobs bank was negotiated in 1984 on the assumption that, in the cyclical automobile business, laid-off workers would eventually be rehired. Workers in the job bank receive a small portion of their pay plus unemployment benefits for 48 weeks, but then are restored to full pay while unemployed. Gettelfinger vows to fight to retain this.

Recently Gettelfinger suggested that the UAW, which soon will be more than two-thirds smaller than it was when it had 1.5 million members 20 years ago, might consider merging with another union. A UAW card no longer means that life cannot be hard.


George Will

George F. Will is a 1976 Pulitzer Prize winner whose columns are syndicated in more than 400 magazines and newspapers worldwide.
 
TOWNHALL DAILY: Be the first to read George Will's column. Sign up today and receive Townhall.com daily lineup delivered each morning to your inbox.