Auto bailouts and teacher unions

Well, I can’t believe I ate the whole thing! Wait a minute. That was Thursday. This is Monday. And I’m a little slow getting back at it — with the freezing drizzle at 5 a.m. this morning a tough way to start the week. But I was thinking this morning while running about two stories I read over the weekend. They aren’t related. Yet they stuck with me for five miles.

The first is about Jdimytai Damour, the Wal-Mart employee who was trampled to death by a mob of customers looking for bargains as the store opened early last Friday. I write from time to time here about ethics and civility. I wonder if Mr. Damour, a temporary employee hired for the holiday season for what I expect was slightly better than minimum wage, would still be alive if people just demonstrated some courtesy, some civility. And part of it is the hype of “Black Friday” — created in part by the retailers and promoted by the news media. Folks, we’re talking about discounted prices on toys, appliances and clothing. No one should show up for work and end up being killed for that. And for those who really want to run with the bulls, let me suggest you head to Pamplona, not Wal-Mart.

The second story involves the auto industry. We’re still at it. Bail them out? Let them go bankrupt? Well you know, yadda, yadda, yadda. The Detroit automakers have to return to Capitol Hill tomorrow (let’s hope by car or bus) to present business plans that they hope will pry loose billions in federal funds. I really can’t believe that any thoughtful person wants the American auto industry to go belly up. But there does appear to be legitimate issues about the best way to provide some relief — and just maybe some hope to thousands of workers in this country.

Tom Suddes got to the heart of it yesterday in The Plain Dealer in a column that did several things. Suddes focused on the importance of the auto industry to Northeast Ohio and the state in general. He looked at the intellectual — if not moral — contradiction between providing billions to banks and insurance companies and not a penny to manufacturing companies. And he touched on what I sense is an emerging issue in the country: The willingness to point the finger of blame for problems on unions and on workers who have union representation on the job. More on that point in a minute — since it is important in a lot of areas, including education.

Here’s Suddes:

Congressional dawdling over federal help for Detroit’s Big Three automakers is yet another hypocritical attack on the living standards of working Ohioans.

If you wreck a bank – unless it’s a Cleveland bank – Congress and the Treasury Department rush to mop up. But if your company employs union labor (the United Auto Workers at Big Three plants, the IUE-CWA at Delphi plants), take a number, pal: You’re not a priority.

Maybe next time, Ohio’s autoworkers and parts builders will have learned their lesson: If you want help from Congress, write crummy mortgages or shaky insurance guarantees, because Ohioans who actually make things with their hands or with machines need not apply. (Of course, when the next time rolls around, Ohio may not have any manufacturing jobs left.)

And more:

According to data from the state Department of Development, almost 15,000 Ohioans work for General Motors, about 11,000 for Ford, almost 7,000 for Chrysler and 6,000 for Delphi, the parts manufacturer. If you want to argue that losing or “downsizing” those payrolls would be no big deal, try to sell that story elsewhere. I’m from Youngstown and my father worked in a steel mill. So did the whole neighborhood. Correction: What was the neighborhood. End of story – a heartbreaking story.

In the 1970s, Wall Street and Washington caused American steel’s troubles, but the “Free to Choose” economic cult predictably blamed the United Steelworkers. Union members had the gall to prefer a living wage and decent benefits to company-town serfdom. Yet the steel those “overpaid” men and women produced – not wage cuts dreamed up by economists with lifetime jobs – is what built Ohio.

Sure, there’s more in play politically in the Detroit bailout stalemate than campaign contributors’ 30-year war on the living standards of American working families.

I’m not a strong advocate for unions. (Disclosure: I’m a nonparticipating member of the American Association of University Professors.) Although I’m not as negative about organized labor as many — with a Harris Interactive poll in 2005 indicating that most Americans rate labor unions negatively.

Anyway, I heard several people — on TV and in real life — over the long holiday weekend blame unions for the problems we face in Detroit and with public education throughout the country but in the nation’s capital especially. That for me is a little like the dark meat; it’s somewhat tough to swallow. Yet I believe it is an emerging idea that is going to hinge on communication to help shift responsibility from management and elected officials to other organizations and individuals.  Clearly, there is plenty of blame to go around on all the big issues facing our nation — from the economy to education. But to point the finger squarely at the guys and gals on the assembly line or in the classroom. Well, yadda, yadda, yadda.

So we’ll see what the Big Three come up with in terms of business plans to rescue the industry — and how much responsibility will be shifted to employees and the U.A.W.

And I’m going to continue to look at the events in Washington where people believe that the superintendent’s actions aimed at “breaking the teachers’ union” are essential to revamping public education in that city and elsewhere. We’ll see. For me, and for all of us, this situation should provide an interesting look at management and leadership — and at communication within the context of credibility and trust.

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5 responses to “Auto bailouts and teacher unions

  1. Thoughtful post. I think there is plenty of blame to go around for the Big Three’s problems. Lack of innovation, too many brands, bloated structures and an inability to shed negative perceptions.

    But we have to look at ourselves as well. Not a lot of people are buying American cars. I’m not anti-foreign car, but I have never considered buying one. I know many are built in the U.S., but the profits from those sales go overseas. I may not be trendy, but I can’t complain about the quality of the American cars I’ve purchased.

    I have little sympathy for the CEOs, but I do admire the workmanship of the American autoworker. I wish more Americans would.

    • Francie, Thanks for the comment. And I do agree. You’re going to see this play out next in the public schools. Haven’t been able to “reform” education — so the public and policymakers view that as “bankrupt” just like the auto industry. And the fingers are starting to point now at teachers — and teachers’ unions. Keep a close eye on what’s happening in the public schools in Washington, D.C. and with the chancellor, Michelle Rhee. This is another one of those big issues that desperately needs everyone to work together on solutions. Pointing at the teachers — and unions — will be harmful in the long run.

  2. Check out movie — Zeitgeist: Addendum, many questions will disappear

  3. Interesting story in the NYT yesterday on this subject: “Autoworkers Worry More Givebacks Are In Store.” Here’s the link: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/01/business/01uaw.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=united%20auto%20workers&st=cse

    Also, I have noticed that one of the Cleveland-area GM auto dealers — I believe Pat O’Brien — is focusing on the idea of “buy American, save jobs” in advertisements.

    And realistically that is part of the issue. Have to sell cars — and plenty of them. In the meantime, I think management needs to come up with a business plan that will work — and it has to include more than concessions from the autoworkers.

    By the way, I drive a Jeep. My son drives a Jeep. My wife drives a BMW. Not sure where that puts us.

  4. I really think the big reason in the difference in public opinion to the bailouts for Big 3 vs. Wall Street is anti-union resentment. While the CEO’s make unreal amounts of money, we can’t relate to them. But it’s easy to relate to our neighbor who works at a union plant and gets gold plated benefits. And once we relate to them, we compare ourselves to them.

    Americans compare their middle-class pay and benefits to those enjoyed by union members such as teachers, auto workers and public employees which include unmerited job security, higher pay, early retirement and gold plated pensions.

    To those who have lost much of their 401, face layoffs or inadequate health insurance, jealously and resentment quickly crop up. So when being asked to support a subsidy, levy or bailout that will provide these benefits, Americans revolt and grumble.

    I believe the UAW is facing some hard times as the tide of public opinion turns and that other unions (govt employees, teachers) will also feel the heat in this economy.

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