Friday, April 03, 2009

The view from here...

The other day when I checked and found I had managed to get one more pension check "before the end of the world" I said something about it on my Facebook page prompting an e-mail exchange with someone who said afterwards I should post something like it here.

I try not to climb on the soapbox too often, as we all have enough people who feel obliged to do that in our lives and I'd rather not be a part of that club!

Yet with all that's gone on of late, perhaps some of you might find parts of it interesting, so I'm pasting and doing a bit of editing...

My friend, seeing my Facebook note, wrote and asked if I thought Obama was doing the "right" thing by the auto industry, or was he going to make things worse. My reply:

"We all tend to fear for ourselves, for our own best interests, myself included. I beat myself both mentally and physically for 30 years in return for a promise, one written and signed and supposedly guaranteed. One that others gave up payraises to get in the generations before me so that there would never be another generation to go through what theirs and the one before had gone through. (The Great Depression)

People gave up dimes and quarters in an era when that was 30 minutes pay for those benefits; that some judge can wipe it away as though it it were nothing is somehow not only terrifying, but wrong. When the airline industries went through bankruptcies these last 30 years many of their workers, given the same promises I was, ended up receiving $1 on every $4 they were owed. Many others have ended up with far less. My wife's father, 30 years in a woolen mill in Vermont, got a severance check and told:

"Sorry, new ownership!" At 64, his world come to an end, he sat down on the porch, started drinking and never stopped.

Why should the banks and the creditors "get theirs" first, other than their control of the levers of power?

Through my years I've known so many people. I knew the man that was the highest paid employee at Consolidated Aircraft at the outbreak of WW2. He was an inspector who had worked his way from machinist to tool and die maker to the most important hourly man in the plant in San Diego. He was considered critical and though he tried to enlist was told he was too important. He made $.40 an hour...

I knew several that hired in in the first group when GM took over the old North American B-25 plant where my grandmother and her sisters had worked during the war. They hired in in 1946 at $.47 an hour...

When I hired in I got $5.44 and came up to scale at a tick over $7 at the end of 90 days in 1978. At that point our insurance covered us immediately, including my already pregnant with our 2nd son wife (now it's 18 months after you hire in) and also covered office visits and most everything else; prescriptions were $3.

So to have Richard Shelby or anyone else tell me that I was or am the problem is like throwing gasoline on a match. We were within a dollar of the same wages and benefits as his non-union Japanese transplants before this last contract was opened up yet again! The entire industry was "off the hook" for retiree health care, paying only part of it's estimated cost into a trust fund to be managed by the Union. Now they are trying to get out of paying even that by substituting stock instead.

For years if Chevrolet came up with something that sold, management diluted the market by changing a bit of trim and badging Oldsmobile, Buick and Cadillac variants. They created Saturn and diluted the market so badly they killed Oldsmobile, a name that had stood for over 100 years. Yet like AIG execs getting their bonus checks, they already took their money and ran, leaving the workers to pay the price.

I am sure that Obama had good reason for asking for Rick Wagoner's resignation. Probably to do with the fact that they still weren't killing entire divisions of products and eliminating the dual and triple badging within them.

Yet Wagoner was the first one to knock down the levels of "white shirts" within the plants, let alone the layers between us and them. He did away with thousands of salaried jobs for the hundreds assembly jobs that left, the first time I had seen that. We went from 1 white shirt in the plant for every 8 to 10 hourly people to about 1 in 15, a step in the right direction...though those offices in Detroit and elsewhere seemed to have a knack for hiding their friends out in "temporary slots" out in the factories, so that they didn't show up in the census of management/hourly ratios.

When I hired in in 1978 there were 5,000 of us on 2 shifts to build 549 cars per shift. When I left there were about 1500 of us building the same number of cars. The number of white shirts never reduced as dramatically as our ranks did until Wagoner took the reins.

Though he tried to reduce those numbers, there were good salaried people that were forced out so someone's buddy or wife or relative could have their job...these cuts weren't always done by merit. So we ended up with mid-level people from the Detroit offices or elsewhere trying to manage line workers when they had never built a car in their life and us building cars despite them. Some of them have since been forced out as well, others I'm sure are making other lives miserable still!

With all of that going on, the Malibu and Saturn won back to back Car of the Year awards, something never done by another assembly plant. Ever! The Buick they were getting ready to bring on line as I retired has apparently done the same.

The man who headed the design team for all of these, Bob Lutz, is also retiring and that worries me because he did have a knack, much like Harley Earl in the years gone by.

I read a Wall Street Journal story night before last that illustrates a lot of my frustrations:

"Malibu Shows Road to Revival Is Bumpy"

It was hard not to look up that man's address in the phone book!

For the same reason that it was hard to swallow my pride and quell the ache in my heart when my older son's wife went and paid cash for a new Hyundai a few weeks go because her Dad told her GM and Ford were going under...

I told Dottie I'd never speak to him again...I can't do that to my daughter-in-law, but don't think I could let it in my driveway! I'd walk or call a cab before I rode in it, I swear!

It's not like I haven't ridden in them before, I even rented a Volvo once to see what the fuss was about!

I told my son that it's not about her buying a foreign car, but that she bought one built in Korea, right now, when keeping as many dollars here as we can is more important than it's been in 75 years! If she wanted a Toyota or Honda or whatever, at least buy one built there that paid American workers instead of the couple of longshoreman and truck drivers that unloaded and delivered it!"


Since I wrote that the Union has offered to accept stock in lieu of the money the companies were supposed to have paid into the VEBA fund on condition that the government offer to warranty it as they have the cars themselves...I haven't heard of anyone approving that idea yet.

I hope none of you take offense at this...none was intended!

May your weekends be kind!



Samantha said...

So wait, I'm confused? Does this mean that part of the ongoing madness, they are taking away your pension? I'm sorry, but there is no excuse for that. I believe in buying American when I can, but when folks who DO the work are thrown under the bus so the execs can party like it's 1999? No, I'm sorry, unacceptable.

I'm not going to lie, I own a '99 Kia, and the main criteria I used when buying it was price/performance. Nothing domestic got that kind of gas mileage for under 10K with a much longer warranty.

All the major US car companies need to put value back into the product, and the people who do the hard work. I hope they didn't really take your pension. I was starting to think that when it comes time to replace my Jumper, that I'd get an American car. Now I'm wondering.

When are the people who DO the work going to get a bailout? Your pension was part of the compensation plan they offered when you hired on, it's almost always in lieu of more money up front. Having them take your pension from you means theft, means they lied, means that the white shirts are more important than the people who do the work.

I'm sorry, but that's wrong.

Riot Kitty said...

A promise is a promise - thank you for this. It's very interesting to me to hear the side of someone who worked there, and I didn't know the CEO was a reasonable guy. I do like Obama and I voted for him, but I think it's the height of arrogance for him to ask a CEO to resign.

I have owned two cars and each was a Saturn, and the biggest reason I bought them was because they're made in Tennessee - not overseas. It's a damn good car and I was happy to put money into the pockets of people here making a decent wage.

I used to be a labor reporter. It infuriates me when workers are blamed for a company's mistakes, and when they're also expected to fucking starve while CEOS go off with golden parachutes, even if they ran the company into the ground!

Alan, you have nothing to apologize for. This was an honest and insightful thing to write.

Dr. Deb said...

I rather like when you get soap=boxy. You always have something meaningful, passionate and well written. Get on it more often, I say.

von Krankipantzen said...

I cannot claim to even begin to understand everything going on in the US. Partially because I tend to watch Canadian content news but mostly because I don't watch news as much as I should. What I do glean from this post is that once again the little guy gets the shaft. This is an all too common theme and getting even worse as of late. I am sick of it and wish it would stop. I totally empathise with your despair and frustation.

Anne said...

I wish I could see into the future and have some wisdom about what would help. There are so many conflicting beliefs, among smart and well-intentioned people, about what will be useful. Economics is not my strong suit, being trained in psychology and having various other areas of expertise. Just ducking and heading straight into the wind, hoping for the best for all while trying to survive.

Recession, Real Estate, and Rethinking Retirement

robin andrea said...

I'm so glad you wrote this, alan. I have been following the economic news and the dire situation with our domestic car industry. I think it is important that you do get on your soapbox here. We need to read this stuff from a worker's perspective, from a pensioner's perspective. We have become a nation that serves wealth at the expense of those who work.

Chandira said...

That's a painful story Alan, I'm sorry that things have been so tough.

You know though, I have Korean friends, and their families are also just as proud and happy to have the work, and we're all one human family at the end of the day. That might be hard to swallow, but I really want to just say that what creates separateness and division between nations is unnecessary, when we realize each others' humanity.

That might well be easy for me to say, until my job is done by somebody from a call center in Mumbai, I know that, but I have to also voice my feelings about the rest of humanity here, not just in the US.

Chandira said...

PS, it's a hard situation we all face at the moment, every one of us.

It's not the Korean's fault, it's the greed of those at the top, and I do see that, and hear what your post is about.

zilla said...

I've only really read the comments (it's after midnight, dear) but I'll be back with coffee in the morning. I've been way busier than I like to be, and I've missed you, but thank you for making this post, Alan. Thank you!