Being from Michigan, and having many family members who work for the Big Three automakers, I payed close attention to the recent bailout drama a few weeks ago.
I'm not going to yap about if the Big Three deserve a bailout or not, or if their business practices have led to their current situation (although I will point out that even the highly touted foreign automakers are facing huge losses in the face of high gasoline prices earlier this year and the current economic crisis). This debate has been going on in the US since the 1970s, people thinking American cars are terrible is nothing new. What did totally shock me though was the real anger and dislike for unionized workers at the American automakers, the disdain for the UAW and it's members. That disdain and anger didn't just come from the Republicans on Capitol Hill (which is totally predictable because they hate unions and the middle class), but from everywhere in America. To quote Bob Herbert in his fantastic New York Times Op-Ed piece "It is becoming an article of faith in the discussions over an auto industry rescue, that unionized autoworkers should be taken off of their high horses and shoved into a deal in which they would not make significantly more in wages and benefits than comparable workers at Japanese carmakers like Toyota."
What is the difference in wages and benefits then? The breakdown from David Leonhardt's December 10th article in the Times says "most of the gap stems from [the Japanese automakers] less generous benefits," and that about $15 of the gap is the benefits that the automakers continue to pay to their retirees - and there are a lot of them. Basically the difference is that UAW workers, past and present, have good health care and pension benefits. So what the heck is the problem with that?
Sure, unionized autoworkers (and I say unionized because most workers at the Japanese plants aren't unionized, and therefore have "less generous benefits") have a great deal, a better deal than the majority of Americans who are perpetually terrified of losing health insurance and everything in their 401(k). Are Americans insanely jealous of the auto workers? So jealous that in some crazed, bitter outpouring of anger they want to see the auto workers brought down to that level? And let's screw over the old, retired people while we're at it?
What is so bad about someone getting a good benefits package? Why aren't we thrilled that through the UAW an entire generation of workers entered into the middle class, with secure wages and health care and pensions? (Today's workers can't aspire to anything that good, btw) Why do we insist that auto workers be brought down to a subsitence level?
I read Un americain en picardie a month or two after I first got to France last year and loved it (and totally recommend it, it's hilarious). But I was disappointed at the end when the American boss who comes in to run the French factory, in my opinion at least, capitulates to what I think are some of the worst parts of how businesses are run in France. He became "too French." But have I in turn become too French? Is it "too French" to think that benefits should be a basic right? I know when I lived full time in the US I still felt this way! Am I just not American enough? I just can't understand whatever makes so many people think that somehow it isn't right for the auto workers to have health care and pension benefits. Good health care and retirement packages shouldn't be restricted to doctors and lawyers and the bankers and hedge fund managers who caused the current global economic crisis. Everyone should get good benefits, including working people. We all, all Americans, deserve a better deal than, as Bob Herbert puts it, "a race to the bottom."
End of soap box rant. Just had to get something that's been driving me insane for the past month off my chest. Rant over.