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Published: Saturday, 12/13/2008

UAW workers' pay on par with Japanese competitors in U.S.

BY STEVE EDER
BLADE STAFF WRITER

It's so perplexing that it halted the painstaking negotiations in the U.S. Senate to lend $14 billion to bail out the struggling automakers.

As a prerequisite for the aid to automakers, Senate Republicans demanded that United Auto Workers agree to wage concessions that would cause pay for its assembly-line workers to fall in line by next year with those paid by Japanese companies.

The numbers, however, paint a picture of UAW wages already in line with Japanese competitors building cars in the United States.

"There's a lot of myths out there," said Ed Miller, a spokesman for Honda, which has plants in six states, including Ohio.

"There's some assumptions about our pay and benefits that are just that - they are assumptions," he said.

UAW President Ron Gettelfinger, in a news conference in Detroit yesterday, accused the Republican senators of engaging in "subterfuge" to stand in the way of a bailout, going so far as to say the GOP wanted to "pierce the heart" of organized labor.

"There were Republicans that wanted to tear down any agreement we came up with," Mr. Gettelfinger said.

During the past month, as the Big Three have pleaded with Congress to loan them millions to bail them out of a financial mess that threatens their survival and as many as 3 million jobs, the UAW repeatedly has been forced to defend the wages earned by its workers and offer concessions to aid the faltering automakers.

In one attempt to dispel rumors about lavish $73-an-hour wages paid to UAW workers, the union released a fact sheet explaining that Chrysler, Ford, and General Motors pay $28 an hour for assemblers and $33 an hour for skilled trades workers. New hires make about $14 an hour, according to the union.

The fact sheet called the notion that UAW workers make $73 per hour "outdated and inaccurate," explaining that figure includes not only health care, pension, and other compensation, but includes the pensions and health-care benefits of retired employees.

"That $73 was not explained very well over the years," Mr. Miller of Honda said.

General Motors says its total hourly costs are $69 an hour - including the pension and health benefits of more than 432,000 retired workers. Toyota, which has fewer retirees and less costly benefit packages, says its total wage costs average $48 an hour.

But based strictly on wages, the $28 an hour paid by Ford, Chrysler, and GM fall in line with their counterparts. Toyota says it pays about $30 an hour, while Honda pays $28.87, and Nissan pays an hourly rate of about $25 an hour.

The $28.87 Honda workers earn includes the base wage of $24.80, plus an attendance bonus of $1.25 for each hour worked, a bonus-sharing program that adds $2.32 per hour, and an earnings payment of 50 cents per hour. Also, Honda workers are offered a competitive health care plan.

At the Jeep plant in Toledo, workers were concerned about the perceptions of what they are paid.

"We haven't had a raise," said Glenn Paisie, 53, of Point Place, a 30-year employee. "We don't get no raises. We're only making a couple bucks more an hour than the foreign plants down in Georgia. The problem is they don't have any retirees to pay for. That's the biggest problem."

Mr. Paisie noted that new hires at Jeep make about $14 an hour.

"How much lower do you want us to go? I think about it, taking a cut, but you have to understand our bills are up to what we make," he said.

Nelson Lichtenstein, the director of the Center for the Study of Work, Labor, and Democracy at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said the rejection of a bailout is about much more than wages.

"It's not just the wage," said Mr. Lichtenstein, who has written books on the automotive industry and Wal-Mart. "It is the whole ethos of having a career. That's what is at stake here."

Mr. Lichtenstein believes those in the Senate who are demanding new concessions from unions are looking beyond wages and are hoping to wash away the power that the UAW has on the factory floor.

"That's really what these Republicans are asking for," Mr. Lichtenstein said.

Mr. Gettelfinger, during his news conference yesterday, accused Republican senators from the South who blocked passage of the auto-loan bill of doing the bidding of foreign automakers who have located factories in their states.

"They thought perhaps they could have a two-fer here maybe: Pierce the heart of organized labor while representing the foreign brands," Mr. Gettelfinger said.

Mr. Lichtenstein said if the UAW falters, it'll cause the wages for assemblers to fall across the board.

"If the UAW is caught in a total bind, then what will happen is in the South these transplants will start paying Wal-Mart wages," Mr. Lichtenstein said.

Japanese firms such as Honda say they are continuing to pay a wage that's competitive with their Big Three counterparts.

"People who live in communities where there are Honda plants, they know," Mr. Miller said.

"The further you get away you are more likely to not know or get things confused."

There are no Honda plants in or near Washington, where lawmakers are deciding the fate of the U.S. auto industry.

In a statement late Thursday night after talks came to a halt, U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D., Ohio) chided Senate Republicans for being out of touch with the "real America."

"Tonight, Senate Republicans, who sometimes observe that all wisdom does not reside in Washington, D.C., decided that they should dictate a labor contract for American autoworkers to replace the one agreed to just last year," Mr. Brown said. "While workers were willing to be part of the solution, they could not and should not shoulder the entire burden."

Ohio Sen. George Voinovich, a Republican, supported the bailout and bemoaned its failure, calling on the White House to use other funds to rescue the automakers.

"The politics need to end before more companies fall through the ice," Mr. Voinovich said in a statement.

Blade staff writer Chauncey Alcorn and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

Contact Steve Eder at:

seder@theblade.com or

419-304-1680.



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