WASHINGTON — The congressional drive to help U.S. automakers was generally cast in terms of protecting the reeling national economy from another body blow — the collapse of one or more of Detroit’s Big Three.
But beneath the surface, what drove conservative Republicans to drive a stake through the heart of a stopgap rescue plan worked out by President George Bush and congressional Democrats was the chance to strike a blow against an old enemy: organized labor.
Antipathy toward unions was an undercurrent throughout the weeks of wrangling that culminated in Thursday’s failed Senate vote. For Republicans — including many from right-to-work states across the South — undercutting the once-mighty United Auto Workers was seen as a way to undercut unions in general.
“If the UAW, which is perceived as one of the strongest unions in the country, can be put under control, that may send a message across the whole country,” said Michigan State University law professor Richard Block, a labor relations expert.
Handing a defeat to labor and its Democratic allies in Congress was also seen as a pre-emptive strike in what is expected to be a major legislative battle when the new Congress convenes in January: The unions’ bid for a so-called “card check” law that would make it easier for them to organize workers, potentially reversing decades of declining power. The measure is strongly opposed by business groups.
But some lawmakers argued that stopping the bailout would strike a blow at unions in general.
“Year after year, union bosses have put their interests ahead of the workers they claim to represent,” said Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., one of the leading opponents of the auto bailout. “Congress never should have given these unions this much power, and now is the time to fix it.”
Labor politics played a role on the Democratic side too, of course. In fighting hard for the $14 billion bailout, they were fighting for one of their most loyal supporters. The UAW, which represents about 150,000 employees of the Big Three, delivered campaign contributions and foot soldiers that helped elect Barack Obama to the presidency, especially in crucial battleground states such as Michigan and Ohio.
What lent a bipartisan gloss to Senate Democrats’ effort, however, was the fact that party leaders had negotiated for days with the White House and made a string of concessions that toughened the bill and won active support from the Bush White House.
Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, a strong auto industry supporter, acknowledged that some of his colleagues simply did not want to help the UAW.
“We have many senators from right-to-work states, and I quite frankly think they have no use for labor,” he said. “Labor usually supports very heavily Democrats, and I think that some of the lack of enthusiasm for this (bailout) was that some of them didn’t want to do anything for the United Auto Workers.”
One major car dealer, a Republican, said conservatives let political ideology get in the way of protecting the country’s best interests.
“Being a Republican myself, I feel very betrayed by the Republican party right now,” said Beau Boeckmann, president of Galpin Motors Inc., in Los Angeles. Galpin has the nation’s largest Ford dealership as well as lots where it sells eight other foreign and domestic brands.
The anti-union undercurrent shot to the surface in the final desperate hours of negotiations. Republicans insisted that the UAW agree to cut their wages to be competitive with American workers at foreign companies such as Honda, Toyota and BMW, by a set date.
UAW officials and their Democratic allies balked at what they called a double standard. The auto workers were being asked to make sacrifices that had been demanded of no other industry receiving government bailouts, they argued.
“We could not accept the effort by the Senate GOP caucus to single out workers and retirees for different treatment and to make them shoulder the entire burden of any restructuring,” UAW President Ron Gettelfinger said, arguing the union had gone farther than any other stakeholder in making concessions to help the companies avoid bankruptcy.
But DeMint argued that the unions were major contributors to Detroit’s plight.
“It is no coincidence that the healthy automakers in the United States are located in ‘right-to-work’ states and are not unionized by the UAW,” he said. “Right to work” states bar agreements between trade unions and employers making membership or payment of union dues or “fees” a condition of employment, either before or after hiring.
Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., a labor ally, said today that Republican senators who opposed the bailout might have “wanted to crush a longtime political rival — the United Auto Workers” without any concern for the economic consequences.
Democrats lauded the UAW as heroes in the bailout process for agreeing to new concessions on top of major ones given in 2005 and 2007, with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., calling the union “courageous” just before the House approved the bailout on Wednesday.
But some Republicans framed the UAW as the villains, criticizing what they called lavish wages and benefits that they said had driven General Motors, Chrysler, and to a lesser extent, Ford, to their knees.
“I’m sure that I’m going to be asked, ‘Congressman, I work at Honda’ or ‘I work at Mercedes. I get $40 an hour,’ ” Rep. Spencer Bachus, R-Ala., said last month. ” ‘Why are you going to take my tax dollars and pay it to a company that’s paying their employees $75 an hour?’ “
That wage figure was widely used by opponents of the auto industry bailout, although it is misleading. It is not the wage paid to current workers. It is an approximation of the costs of salaries and benefits for current and retired workers, extrapolated onto the existing union workforce.
After wage concessions in recent contracts, the UAW says its workers at GM, Ford and Chrysler plants range from $33 an hour for skilled trades to $14 an hour for new hires. Precise wages and extrapolated benefits costs for U.S. workers at nonunionized foreign companies, such as Honda and Toyota, are difficult to ascertain, but Block estimated salaries for current workers are about the same.
The Big Three automakers have higher labor costs primarily because they have operated factories in the United States much longer than their foreign counterparts, so have many more retirees receiving pension and health-care payments, Block said.
Even if UAW workers at GM took a 20 percent pay cut, it would only save the company about $1.1 billion annually because the company’s unionized workforce in the United States has decreased dramatically in recent years to 55,000, he said.
Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, characterized the GOP opposition as “class-warfare assault by the Republicans.”
“They never ask about banker salaries,” he said.
When the new Congress convenes in January, the expanded Democratic majorities are expected to push for legislation known as the Employee Free Choice Act, also known as the “card check,” under which companies would recognize unions if a majority of workers signed cards saying they favored a union, replacing the traditional method of a secret ballot among workers.
Block and other analysts believe the looming fight added to the political maneuvering over the bailout.
“The opposition might be as strong, but it might not be as urgent,” Block said. “If the public could be convinced the problem with the auto industry is the UAW … then it will be easier than otherwise to marshal public support against unions and their legislative agenda.”