THERE'S plenty of blame to go around for the mess the U.S. auto industry finds itself in. A good deal of that blame belongs to the United Auto Workers, and it's about time the union admitted its past mistakes and pledged to forge a new relationship with American consumers.
The critical role of unions, including the UAW, in improving wages, working conditions, and benefits for all American workers is unquestioned. But it also is clear that the UAW took advantage of the U.S. automakers' pre-eminent position in the market after World War II to win unprecedented concessions from weak industry executives willing to make any concession to maintain labor peace.
Now that auto chieftains have owned up to their mistakes in this regard, it's up to the union to make its own public mea culpa. Such a confession might well help erase some of the public enmity over the bailout plan under discussion.
As long as American cars dominated the market and the money kept rolling in, the automakers were willing partners in a process that saw the quality of American cars steadily decline, in no small part because many union workers took advantage of their cushy contracts to do shoddy work on the assembly line - when they weren't actively sabotaging vehicles whenever they were angry with management over real or supposed wrongs.
As Time magazine reported in 1972, thousands of vehicles made at General Motors's Lordstown, Ohio, plant rolled off the line "with slit upholstery, scratched paint, dented bodies, bent gearshift levers, cut ignition wires, and loose or missing bolts."
So many cars and trucks were shipped to dealerships with missing bolts and screws, wiring that shorted out, and other results of poor workmanship that the dealers were forced to hire repairmen to fix the new cars before they could be sold to the public. One of those repairmen said "it was just a way of life back then."
Absenteeism, especially on the day before and after the weekend, was so rampant in the industry that even the most uninformed new-car buyer knew never to purchase a vehicle manufactured on a Monday or Friday.
Now, the Big Three automakers of GM, Ford, and Chrysler - with UAW President Ron Gettelfinger at their side - have gone hat in hand to Washington seeking billions in "bridge loans" to tide them through the current recession. The automakers are promising major structural changes and greener, more fuel-efficient cars. The UAW has offered to delay payment of billions of dollars to a fund scheduled to take over retiree health-care payments in 2010, as well as to suspend the sweetheart "jobs bank" program that, incredibly, pays laid-off auto workers most of their wages while they're out of work.
In return, the UAW would rather we forgot its rapacious past. "I'm not going to get into whose share of blame it is," union leader Lloyd Mahaffey told The Blade.
But there's a problem. Americans have neither forgotten nor forgiven Detroit and the UAW for decades of greed, sense of entitlement, and, especially, foisting off on consumers a poorly made product. In a recent CNN poll, fully 61 percent of Americans were opposed to using taxpayer money to save the auto industry - despite the fact that the collapse of the Big Three would put millions more Americans out of work and devastate the already-reeling national economy.
That's a lot of anger.
The UAW could go toward winning back the trust of the American people if it admitted it took advantage of its powerful position in the past, often at the expense of American consumers who got stuck with inferior vehicles, the prices of which were unduly inflated by fat union contracts.
Moreover, the union should join with management in aggressive steps to get rid of workers who fail to do a quality job, are frequently absent, or are guilty of vandalism on the line. It's a confession that must be backed with action, and it just might win back some of those disaffected customers.