Reluctance to Help Detroit Reeks of Class Bias

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By Warren Brown
Sunday, December 7, 2008

It has happened repeatedly in the last several weeks -- well-paid, well-known journalists questioning the wisdom of "bailing out Detroit," of helping an industry whose union-represented workers have substantially better wages and benefits than other manual or skilled laborers, or, more precisely, who are better compensated than their nonunion counterparts working at foreign-owned rival companies building cars and trucks in the United States.

The questions are tinged with outrage and ridicule: Why should Americans who earn less, have inferior pension and health-care plans, help the United Auto Workers union? Why can't the UAW be satisfied with the same pay packages given at Honda, or with an even less-expensive compensation agreement for workers at the Hyundai assembly plant in Montgomery, Ala.?

The queries often come from people who earn substantially more than the estimated $71,000 annually in wages and benefits paid to UAW members. They come from people who, having reached upper-middle-class status by virtue of their college educations and communication skills, certainly wouldn't settle for earning less.

So, why are the questions being asked?

Might I suggest class bias?

There is a feeling in this country -- apparent in the often condescending, dismissive way Detroit's automobile companies have been treated on Capitol Hill -- that people who work with their hands and the companies that employ them are inferior to those who work with their minds and plow profit from information. How else to explain the clearly disparate treatment given to companies such as Citigroup and General Motors?

Let us stipulate for the record that both Citigroup and GM have made their share of management errors. Citigroup made loans it should not have made and sold lots of commercial paper it should have trashed. But Congress offered barely a whimper of protest to the government's emergency action granting Citigroup $25 billion in bailout money. Similarly, the Mob of Pundits seemed not to care much that many of Citigroup's managers remained just as rich after the federal bailout as they did before receiving the government's aid.

What Citigroup manager was dragged to Capitol Hill to publicly present a long-term plan for business profitability and viability? Did I miss something?

Now comes GM, Ford and Chrysler -- supplicants all, companies that bet wrong on U.S. gasoline prices (the same error made by Toyota with its Tundra pickup, by the way) and that were as shocked as the rest of us by the fiscal carnage caused by bad loans made by banks such as Citigroup.

It apparently matters not that the domestic car manufacturers account for 3 million to 5 million U.S. jobs. It matters not that, despite some bad guesses on product development, they've remained engines of U.S. innovation. (Their work with biologically derived fuels and emergency communications systems are examples.) Nor does it matter that they pulled us through several wars and one terrorist attack (GM's zero-percent financing plan after the Sept. 11, 2001, horror).

And, of course, it does not matter that the domestic manufacturers for decades have been operating in a country wide open to foreign competition, but bereft of anything resembling a sensible industrial or energy policy. That's quite different from Japanese car manufacturers that have benefited mightily from financing and cooperation via Japan's Ministry of International Trade and Industry.

No. The only thing that matters is that Detroit's automobile workers have earned enough money to allow their families to dream, to send their children to the colleges and universities from which many of their critics in the media graduated. How dare they!

Implicit in the criticism of UAW compensation packages is that union-represented automobile workers are being paid above their social class. Greedy, bad people. They are supposed to be satisfied with wages that cover only the basics -- food, acceptable clothing and housing. They are not supposed to receive pay that allows them to aspire to or dream of more. They should be happy with the development of America's Wal-Mart economy, one in which less-expensive skills, talents, products and services are imported to satisfy the American consumer's insatiable lust for the highest-quality goods and services at the lowest possible prices.

That is what stuff-makers and other manual laborers deserve. Wall Street's money people and well-paid journalists, on the other hand, deserve much better. They studied, went to college. They use their brains. They should be paid more.

So, let Detroit's automobile companies slide into bankruptcy. We'll lose a few million more jobs. But those of us lucky enough to remain employed will still be able to buy cars from Honda, Hyundai, Nissan and Toyota. Or, if we are doing quite well, we can snatch something from BMW, Porsche or Mercedes-Benz.

What the heck? If things get really rough, we can always catch a sale at Wal-Mart. Citigroup most certainly would be willing to finance our purchases at favorable interest rates. What a country! We once rejoiced in building things, innovating, racing to the top. Now, at least for the people who use their hands to make this country go, we're celebrating a mad dash to the bottom.

Are we not better than this? Is this the America we want to be?


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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