William Murchison / December 17, 2008

Myths Of The Assembly Line

A famous news photo from the late ‘30s shows toughs employed by the Ford Motor Co. beating up Richard Frankensteen, a United Auto Workers official, during the so-called Battle of the Overpass at Ford’s Rouge River plant in Dearborn.

UAW chief Walter Reuther, walking with Frankensteen, got the same treatment. “Seven times they raised me off the concrete and slammed me down on it,” he later wrote. “… I was punched and kicked and dragged by my feet to the stairways, thrown the first flight of steps … and kicked down the second flight.”

The UAW, whose sit-down strikes had already overwhelmed General Motors’ and Chrysler’s resistance to unionization, wanted Henry Ford on the dotted line. Three years later they got him. The plight of the car companies wasn’t born at the precise moment Walter Reuther fell down the steps, but you could see the mythology shaping up.

Or perhaps not. As the ‘40s ended, the mythology changed from urban struggle to suburban dream. Organized labor, while hardly forgetting the dirty, bitter going of the '30s, bathed in the transcendent radiance of hope and opportunity. Everything, going forward, was going to be spiffy. Got that – spiffy! In 1948, Reuther wrung from the automakers an “escalator clause” pegging wage increases to the cost of living. In 1955, he won agreement that unemployed auto workers would be paid 65 percent of weekly wages for the first four weeks of unemployment and 60 percent for the next 22 weeks. Subsequently the figure climbed to 95 percent.

Comprehensive health care, tuition-refunds, life insurance, profit sharing, pre-paid legal service, bereavement pay – off the UAW assembly line it rolled, contract after contract. Who paid? The auto-buying public paid. The automakers’ contention that they pay workers $73 an hour takes into account the cost of pensions and health insurance for retirees. Still, no one disputes that Detroit’s unionized active workers cost a good $10 an hour more than the nonunionized work forces that build Toyotas, Hondas and BMW’s in the largely nonunionized South.

The heart of the auto “bailout” calamity is that the old model driven jointly by the UAW and the companies for years, pedal to the metal, finally collapsed: spark plugs exhausted, drive shaft broken, radiator rusted out. You can’t – apparently – have domineering unions of the sort Walter Reuther managed during his tenure as UAW chieftain (which ended with his death in 1970). You have to have entities, both managerial and factory-level, deeply responsive to the realities of the marketplace. These realties are … ? That no one today has to buy your car.

Getting to that place is the problem. The postwar, post-sit-down strike mythology of shared prosperity for union and companies still holds the UAW in thrall, and so also the media. The question is phrased: Do we “save Detroit” or don’t we? The reality is that it’s too late. The cheerful conspiracy between Detroit and the unions – lay on the benefits and pass the cost to the auto-buying public – begs for replacement by the more logical strategy of put-it-on-the-market-and-see-who-buys-it.

The bailout allows no latitude for reinvention. It’s all about “saving Detroit” for a few more months rather than subjecting union and companies alike to the rigors of the competitive marketplace. You can hate all you want to – maybe you should – the thought of Detroit-related companies laying off workers or shutting down entirely, because down that way lies social and economic dislocation. A still more hateful prospect is general acceptance of the lie that all the industry needs is a new government-sponsored transmission overhaul.

The 21st century hasn’t been kind to old industries, including my own, the newspaper business, as readers of news and information flee to the Internet. What do we want, we old hack journalists – a bailout? Likelier a little space for reinvention that – woe and alack! – robs us of mores and memories but renews the survivors to fight another day.

We may or may not get such a space. One bets, anyway, we get it before Detroit does.


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