Change policies to aid auto industry

This new year, we’ve got a huge task ahead of us: Restructuring the American auto industry for a viable, long-term future.

It won’t be easy — just as it wasn’t easy to win the emergency bridge loans which give us a chance for a brighter tomorrow. When we went to Washington seeking to help so that U.S. carmakers could weather the current economic crisis, many in the Beltway used this as an excuse to beat up on American companies and American workers.

Then a funny thing happened: A lot of somebodies stood up to defend us — including millions of people who were offended that Main Street manufacturing was subject to such intense scrutiny, while Wall Street investment firms were asked few questions and received a blank check.

Now that America has decided to invest in the domestic auto industry, we have a promise to keep: We won’t let you down. We’re going to do the hard work necessary to rebuild our industry.

All stakeholders must participate. Unfortunately, the terms of the loans approved by President George W. Bush single out members of our union, by demanding steeper and faster concessions from the UAW than from any other part of the industry.

That’s not right, and we’ll work with the Obama administration and the new Congress to implement a more balanced approach. Along the way, we’ll have to clear away some myths. For example, anybody who claims that union work rules interfere with efficiency is uninformed about the current state of our industry.

According to the Harbour Report — the standard for measuring auto plant productivity — all 10 of the most efficient plants in North America are union plants. Union workers get the job done in less hours per vehicle than the competition.

For example, according to 2008 Harbour data, it takes UAW members in Kansas City just over 19 hours to assemble a Ford F-series pick-up. It takes more than 32 hours to assemble the Toyota Tundra, a similar vehicle, at a non-union plant in Princeton, Indiana.

While we’re proud of what we’ve accomplished on the factory floor, the problems of the auto industry cannot be solved by our companies and our union alone.

Cutting wages for middle class workers, for example, won’t do any good for the American economy — and it doesn’t do much for automakers, either, since labor costs are just 10 percent of the price of a vehicle. Instead, we need a strong stimulus plan — like the one planned by President-elect Barack Obama.

And while we’ve worked as creatively as we can to control health care costs within the auto industry, America’s health care crisis remains a national problem in search of a national solution. Economist Dean Baker has estimated that if the U.S. had a universal, national health care system similar to Canada, GM would have saved $22 billion during the past decade.

Until we match our trading partners by creating a universal, national health insurance system, U.S. companies and U.S. workers will remain at a serious competitive disadvantage.

We’re also disadvantaged by current U.S. trade policies. To be clear, we’re not making any excuses. The restructuring of our industry that is required in exchange for government assistance is starting now, regardless of whether we can achieve much-needed policy changes. But creating a viable auto industry for the long-term will require more than emergency bridge loans. It requires sound policies on incomes, trade and health care that will support working families — and renew the U.S. economy.

This editorial is by Ron Gettelfinger and was posted at

Ron Gettelfinger is president of the United Auto Workers.