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Here We Go Again

The leader of the United Auto Workers is retiring. He is leaving a union under siege. By 2009, UAW membership was about half of the level of 1995. The union has hemorrhaged members as the big three domestic automobile producers have shrunk in market share, lost billions of dollars, and closed plants.

The departing leader of the UAW claims that the industry’s difficulties never rested with the union and its rich contracts. In his view, the crisis that led to the bankruptcies of GM and Chrysler and the near bankruptcy of Ford was strictly the result of an unexpected spike in gas prices and a recession that resulted from the mortgage crisis. He believes that the fault lay not with the union and not with the industry. Following this belief, he is encouraging his successor to begin clawing back the cost-cutting concessions that the union has granted the Detroit big three domestic automobile manufacturers now that these companies are moving toward profitable operations.

The problem is that these concessions did not do enough, at least from the results they seem to have produced. The concessions really got underway in 2003, as the union reduced its wages and benefits and transferred retiree healthcare costs from the automakers to an independent trust. Despite these concessions, union membership fell parabolically from 2003 to 2009, right along with the profits in the big three. In the meantime, German and Asian manufacturers continued to be profitable. These profits included profits in U.S. domestic manufacturing facilities as well. (See the Symptom & Implication, “Some industry leaders have lower returns than the smaller competitors” on StrategyStreet.com.)

The union is heading back to trouble and will take its unionized facilities with them. In an earlier blog (See Blog HERE), we described the hourly cost differences in wage rates between a unionized and non-unionized domestic facility. These cost differences are unsustainable in the longer term. No one can expect that an automobile plant with $73 dollar an hour labor will be profitable enough to compete with another domestic plant producing similar automobiles at $48 an hour. Despite recent troubles, the Asian manufacturers still command a premium price over their big three competitors for their products. So, Toyota and Honda get a higher price and produce with a lower costs. (See “Video #1: The Two Best Consultants in the World” on StrategyStreet.com.) Tell me how GM, Chrysler and Ford can produce an equivalent or better car with these economic conditions. The claw-backs will only make things worse.

Posted 7/15/10

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