On Nov. 29, the Senate Banking Committee devoted a marathon seven hours to marking up a bill for the relief of the Chrysler Corporation. The Post's critique of this event called the resulting legislation "extraordinary," and indeed it was, suggesting these preconditions for federal aid to the nearly bankrupt company:
A 3-year freeze on the base wages of Chrysler's hourly workers, who have already approved a contract less favorable than union contracts with GM and Ford.
A 3-year freeze on the total amount paid in compensation to Chrysler's management employees, many of whom have already taken pay cuts of up to 5 percent.
Issuance of $250 million worth of Chrysler common stock to the hourly employees, which might add up to 40 percent ownership of the company, and the corresponding dilution of the interest of present stockholders.
Near doubling of the exposure of banks, which already are testifying that Chyrsler is a doubtful prospect for any new loans.
The bill would increase the total aid to the company from $3 billion, the Carter administration suggestion, to $4 billion, while cutting the taxpayers' money at risk from $1.5 billion to $1.25 billion. "Extradordinary" is not too strong a word for such provisions.
The demand for greater sacrifice drew forth predictable expletives from the intended beneficiaries at Chrysler, who had believed that their visit to the federal treasury would be relatively painless. United Auto Workers spokesmen claimed that their members who are currently paid 42 percent more than the national average wage (the average annual cost to Chrysler per employee for wages and benefits is $26,000 under the old contract) would "starve" and "lose' their homes." Extreme rhetoric aside, these condemnations ignore this fact of life, spelled out by Chairman William Proxmire on the Senate floor: without a new and creative legislative approach, hopes for Chrysler aid were dead, and the company probably dead along with them.
On two test votes in the Banking Committee, the plan pushed by Chrysler, its union and the Carter administration lost by votes of 10 to 4 and 10 to 5. In the House, the same plan was described variously as 40, 50 or 60 votes short of a majority and was held back from a potentially fatal floor vote. The administration plan is losing for two basic reasons: it won't work and it won't sell.
The original legislation offered no genuine prospect of saving Chrysler. Based on clearly overoptimistic assumptions about the economy, new car sales and Chrysler's market share, it seemed designed only to buy time -- maybe the election year of 1980.
Second, the administration plan was not publicly salable. Fully deserving of the overused term "bail-out," it exacted insufficient sacrifices from the parties in interest, overjeopardized the federal taxpayers relative to the private parties, and constituted an open invitation to other ailing companies to make similar applications. Congressmen might have pacified corporate and union lobbyists by holding their noses and voting for such a bill, but the reaction of their constituents would be far less favorable as the terms of this poorly crafted bail-out became better known.
I have no patience with a company that argues that the prosperity of greater sales and market share is just around the corner when all the evidence is to the contrary; nor with a union that expects to persuade taxpayers to subsidize a $1.3 billion pay raise at a corporation that is about to go out of business. Unless legislative action is forthcoming soon, we will be debating the fine points of collective bargaining philosophy around closed loan windows and extended unemployment lines next February. The bargain obtained by the bill I offered with my Democratic colleague, Sen Paul Tsongas (whose current rating by the AFL-CIO is a strong 88 percent), may be too strenuous for Chrysler and its friends; but unless our plan or something similar advances, I predict that nothing will. Wage freezes and stock dilution are not my idead of desirable social policy, especially when inflation is running at 1 percent per month. But the evidence is ample that we must move ahead now on a plan that offers real hope of long-term survival to Chrysler and real hope of public approval to its proponents.
The case we are offering is far more exciting and constructive than the salvage of a hopeless wreck. We offer the best chance to preserve 140,000 jobs and the economic life-blood of several communities in a cooperative effort in which the American public is a partner and not a patsy. We offer a bold, unprecendented experiment in worker ownership of a giant corporation, with all the advantage for incentive and productivity that advocates of that concept expect.
In short, we offer a remedy to match the malady -- something quite "extraordinary."