Wednesday, December 3, 2008

General Mayhem

I haven't gotten on my soapbox in a while. But I have something to say, y'all. And though I might be preaching to the choir, I've just got to get it off my chest.

First off, let me just say that despite my lefty leanings, I am not a big fan of these here bailouts. I know that even many conservatives are saying they are necessary to keep our economy from completely going under after that big iceberg we hit but I just don't know how I feel about the government saving companies who made bad choices.

I will say, though, that I don't want those who work for the banks and the car companies to lose their jobs. And every time I think I have my mind made up, that the bailouts are the worst mistake we've ever made, I hear my dad's voice in my ear, whispering, "Save GM, save the world."

Part of my morning ritual, after the madness of the first hour of school has wound down, is to take 5 and read the editorials in our local paper. Very rarely do I agree with any of the editorials or letters to the editor in this most conservative of regions, but sometimes I am surprised, and I always am interested in what other people are thinking about the day's topics. I don't think I have all the right answers and like to challenge myself to form my own opinions rather than always toeing the party line.

Today there were two letters from readers talking specifically about GM and the potential bailout. Both were in support of the bailout as a way of supporting the workers themselves.

Well. On our local paper's website readers can comment much like a blog. And these two letters got a lot of comments. Angry comments that draw an awful lot of conclusions about the men and women who power the American automobile industry.

One commenter calls UAW workers in general and GM workers in particular "deadbeats" who work 4 hours a day and make $72 an hour. "Go out and get a REAL JOB working 8 hours a day!" he says.


Oh, that's just one anonymous a-hole commenting on a blog, you may be saying. Oh, if only. Opinions like this, that working for GM is some kind of overpaid dream job, prevail.

"The union salaries are killing the Big 3!" people are saying. "The workers make too much money to just stand on an assembly line and tighten screws!"

"Their benefits are too much!" others say. "They need to have their insurance benefits cut and retirees need to pay full premiums like the rest of us!"

Finally..."They have pensions! And their spouses draw their pensions! The pensions are doing them in!"

Oh, the horror of retired over-65s who have the gall to be drawing pensions.

I know that UAW rules are one of the many things that have made American car companies unprofitable. But I also know, as the daughter of a man who worked first on 2 GM assembly lines and later in a GM parts warehouse, that that life is far from Easy Street.

I don't know who the above responder was referring to when he talked about deadbeat workers making $72 and hour and putting in 4 hours a day at most, but I promise you he wasn't talking about my dad and the men and women he worked with.

For 30+ years, my dad did hard physical labor. Some people think that standing on an assembly line and plugging in one part for 8 hours a day isn't hard labor; as someone who barely made it through one summer working on a warehouse supply line, I can tell you it's grueling. At the Norwood plant, Dad did brake assembly and stood crouched half-in, half out of car bodies. For several years at Marion, he worked with welders and came home every night with holes burned into his t-shirts from sparks. When mom washed his undershirts, she would sometimes shake her head at the holes that made it through those, too. The last years he worked he filled orders at a parts warehouse and, according to the pedometer he wore for kicks one night, walked about 10 miles criss-crossing all over the warehouse in a standard shift. Dad, however, didn't complain.

In his last decade, an 8-hour shift was a short one for Dad. Knowing that layoffs could come at any time, he took every opportunity for overtime he could get. Even in his late 50s and early 60s he worked on average 10 hours a day, 5 days a week. During what he called "good times" he worked a 12 or 14 hour shift each weekday and then a 6 or 8 hour shift on Saturday.

Working those kinds of hours doing that kind of on-your-feet job is difficult. I couldn't do it; seeing my dad come through the door worn to the bone some mornings after a 14-hour shift just as I was getting up for school is one of the biggest reasons why I worked toward a college degree.

People talk about the overly high salaries negotiated by the union. I don't know anyone in Dad's group who made $72 an hour. Here's the reality I saw: in the parts warehouse, after 30 years of UAW-negotiated raises, my dad's regular hourly wage was something like $22 an hour. Is that a nice salary? Certainly. Was it exorbitant? As someone who made it through college on financial aid and frequently qualified for free or reduced school lunches, it sure didn't feel that way. Did he always rake in that kind of hourly wage? Hell, no. In any given year Dad might have been on labor cutback or temporary lay-off for at least a month or so, often longer, and even though he drew unemployment, things got tight. When I was in second and third grade Dad was out of work for 15 months, and that's the poorest I've ever been; in the winter of 1982 I had two pairs of cheap overalls and two white turtleneck sweaters I alternated between to wear to school and we dug through couch cushions for change to buy luxuries like Coke.

Beginning in the 80s working for GM was unstable; Dad was constantly worried about layoffs but had enough years in that it made no sense to get another job. When the Norwood plant shut down, the only reasonable option was to "commute" to the small town 4 hours away to the next closest plant in Indiana. During those years, Dad's salary supported us (though my mom always made a little money as a hairdresser) and kept up an apartment for himself. He could have packed us all up, but with rumors of that plant closing, too, it seemed too risky a gamble.

We did have pretty good health insurance, though like everyone, benefits declined and out-of-pocket expenses went up starting in the 90s and continuing through Dad's retirement. For a long while we had to pay full price for doctor visits though most everything else was covered at 100%. Dad died less than a year after he retired, and one of his big sickbed worries was that the insurance for retirees was not what he and mom were used to and he racked up some pretty big medical bills in the last months of his life. Had some of his doctors not decided to write off most of those co-insurance costs, my mother would still be paying on his bills 3 years later.

My mother still benefits from Dad's retiree insurance coverage as her secondary insurance, which I've heard some pundits slam. She doesn't pay a premium for her insurance, but the insurance isn't as good as mine; her recent trip to the hospital is going to cost her a couple thousand out of pocket. She still draws his pension, too. This leads many to point to GM's welfare state. But here's the thing: they both counted on that. My mother didn't work for one single company all her life to get her own health insurance and retirement benefits; she was a hairdresser who worked in small privately-owned shops. Dad was from a different generation; in his mind, he worked to support both himself and my mom for their whole lifetimes. He chose to spend his working years in a GM factory because it was his best option after he left the military for being able to support his wife not only during his lifetime but after he was gone. Change was in the wind before even he passed away, and he had begun to save a modest bit of money to support Mom if GM every decided to cut retiree benefits. But in a time before 401Ks, in a generation where many women did not work outside the home, GM's "welfare" made the long hours, the uncertainty, and the hard labor worth it.

Some of the commenters have pointed to the union's "30-years-and-out" rules as being behind the times. It was fine when people were dying in their 60s, they say, to allow people to draw benefits after 30 years. Now that people are living to 90, that's just too much! No wonder the Big 3 are going bankrupt!

Anyone who thinks 30 years of factory work isn't worthy of retirement never worked in a factory. It wore out my father's body. When he moved, his joints popped like gunshots. The cancer my father died of, bladder cancer, is a common one in people who work around industrial painters and with solvents (which Dad did at various times during his career.) Not to blame his job for his cancer; I prefer to point my finger at the cigarettes. But working on an assembly line and in a parts warehouse put wear and tear on his body in a way that school librarianship is never going to put on mine. And I will be able to retire after 27 years. And draw a pension. And have retirement insurance coverage.

Even though my mom relies on Dad's pension, she is frustrated with the auto companies. She was outraged that the CEOs showed up in private jets. She realizes they have made bad business choices. She knows there has to be a huge change in their business model if they are to survive. She is trying to prepare for what life may be like if the government allows them to go under. It will be a much tougher life, as she will just be living off of her meager savings and Social Security. She's resigned to the possibility, but doesn't want this. She wants to have the life my Dad worked so hard to give her. And I think this really sums up where I stand: no matter your opinion on the bailout, no matter whether or not you think the Big 3 should just be allowed to go bankrupt and have to start all over, you have to see that there is a human face to this.

There are people who worked 8 hours a day 5 days a week for 30 years and physically gave the best they had to a company. There are people working (more than 4 hours a day, and for way less than $72 an hour) in plants and distribution warehouses now whose families and communities won't make it without these jobs.

The GM my dad worked for, with its pension, union wages, and benefits, must change if it is to survive. It does not follow a successful 21st century business model. I get that.

But before you judge and blame the union, and blame the workers, and the "welfare state" for the crisis, think about people like my dad--the men and women with calluses on their hands from doing work many of us wouldn't be willing to do. Think about working that kind of job day in and day out and what kind of retirement, salary, and benefits you would need to be able to do that kind of work every day of your working life. Think about the older workers and retirees who, rightly or wrongly, were essentially given a promise of security.

Think what you want about the bailout and about the failures of the American auto industry. Just be careful what you think about the men and women who are most affected by the future of those companies.


Robert K. said...

I agree that the auto workers do a very difficult job for not a lot of money (the $72/hour figure comes from a New York Times article, by the way, and is taken out of context. It refers to GM's total expenses for current and retired employees, divided by the number of active workers). And I don't deny that it will totally suck if all of them lose their jobs. However, a couple of points:
1) Airlines have functioned in and out of Chapter 11 bankruptcy for decades. So although there will be job losses, most workers will likely remain employed.
2) However deserving those workers might be, the fact remains that health care costs and pensions are eating up quite a bit of the automakers budgets. After offering generous benefits in lieu of higher pay in the 1950s and 60s, they're finding that it's come back to bite them on the butt. It's not the workers' fault, it's the automakers for not foreseeing how demographics would change (much like FDR and Social Security).
3) Plenty of foreign automakers manage to build cars with American workers, to sell to the American market, and make money. The American automakers have been bleeding money for decades because they don't produce high-quality cars that Americans want to buy. Period.
4) Capitalism is based on creative destruction. Right now, GM, Ford, and Chrysler are tying up resources that could potentially be better used by companies that ARE capable of producing high-quality products that Americans want to buy. For example, NAFTA caused job losses in the early 1990s, but also led to a resurgance of entrepreneurialship. Some of those workers reskilled themselves for technology fields, and helped bring about the explosion of the Internet, which increased productivity across the entire economy, to the point that unemployment in 2000 was less than 5%.
5) Even if we throw billions of dollars at GM, Ford, and Chrysler today, there is no guarantee that they will not be back for billions more next year, or the year after, or the year after... Rather than effectively nationalizing these companies, let them die quickly, and use those dollars to support training programs to help the workers re-skill. Maybe they will be the ones who help convert the US to a green economy, and in the future the US and the world will be a cleaner and wealthier place because we put them out of work today.

Library Lady said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Robert K. said...

Be careful. You and your bleeding liberal heart just agreed with a libertarian. ;) Come to the dark side. We have cookies.

Library Lady said...

I cannot be persuaded by cookies. Wait, are they chocolate??

See, I don't follow the party line for everything...and the Wall Street bailout left this bitter taste in my mouth that I can't seem to get rid of. Maybe cookies would help. But just one cookie. Not the whole platter. : )

Library Lady said...

Library Lady here...I tried to edit a comment where I agreed with Rob (!) Not to make the comment not agree, but to edit my quoting of my mom's opinion on the bailout. Instead of editing, it got deleted because I am a moron.

When Mom heard I shared her feelings with "some friends", she said she was talking out of anger when she told me last night she wanted GM to file bankruptcy. She has thought about it and like many of the rest of us, she's torn. She thinks GM is screwed no matter what, but she can't stomach the thought of all the guys Dad worked with losing jobs, losing pensions. She also doesn't want to lose the pension she's drawing.

"If I lose that, I may have to come live with you or your sister."

Well, that changes things.

In all seriousness, I do agree with a lot of what Rob says, especially point #5. I didn't mean to delete my agreeing. Let the record show...the liberal agrees with the libertarian. But that doesn't necessarily mean I am against the bailout. Here's the God's honest truth: if my mom didn't depend on GM, we both would be against the bailout. But it's personal.

There isn't an easy answer to all this, is there? And just when I think I know how I feel...I don't.

Last comment about this stuff. I swear. But let me repeat: I have agreed with a Libertarian. Also, the devil just shivered.

Karen said...

I was under the impression that the Big Three were asking for government loans that will be paid back with interest, and not a bailout like the banks are. I believe Chrysler did the same thing back in the late 70's and paid the loan back. I've also seen a statistic that says 1 in 14 jobs are tied to the U.S. auto industry. If this is true, that's an awful lot of jobs in jeopardy if they were to go under. Not to mention the pensions people worked hard for.

I've been really aggravated by the whole banking industry bailout, but I'm not sure I'm so opposed to lending money that would be paid back with interest. You think the government would be willing to bail me out? I need some money too.