Excerpt Of The Day #1: How Unions Are Destroying The Big 3 Automakers

“This is a common viewpoint, I’ve found, among my Democratic friends–Jon Alter, this means you!–who would never actually buy a Detroit product but who want to believe the UAW can’t be blamed. The argument seems to be roughtly this: a) American cars are now reliable enough, having closed the gap with the Japanese brands, so b) the workers are doing their job; therefore c) if Detroit cars like the G6 are still obviously inferior–tacky and cheap, with mediocre handling–it must be because they’re designed badly by white collar professionals, not because they’re built badly by blue collar union members.

The trouble with this comforting liberal argument is labor costs. When Kuttner says “Japanese total labor costs are comparable, even with Detroit’s higher health insurance costs,” he is–as is so often the case–talking through his hat. Look at this chart. GM pays $31.35 an hour. Toyota pays $27 an hour. Not such a big difference. But–thanks in part to union work rules that prevent the thousands of little changes that boost productivity–it takes GM, on average, 34.3 hours to build a car, while it takes Toyota only 27.9 hours. ** Multiply those two numbers together and it comes out that GM spends 43% more on labor per car. And that’s before health care costs (where GM has a $1,300/vehicle disadvantage).

If you’re GM or Ford, how do you make up for a 43% disadvantage? Well, you concentrate on vehicle types where you don’t have competition from Toyota–e.g. big SUVs in the 1980s and 1990s. Or you build cars that strike an iconic, patriotic chord–like pickup trucks, or the Mustang and Camaro. Or–and this is the most common technique–you skimp on the quality and expense of materials.

…Is it really an accident that all the UAW-organized auto companies are in deep trouble while all the non-union Japanese “transplants” building cars in America are doing fine? Detroit’s designs are inferior for a reason, even when they’re well built. And that reason probably as more to do with the impediments to productivity imposed by the UAW–or, rather, by legalistic, Wagner-Act unionism–than with slick and unhip Detroit corporate “culture.” — Mickey Kaus

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