Saturday, March 31, 2007

Daniel Howes: Gettelfinger can't tell it like it really is

Wednesday, March 28, 2007
Daniel Howes
Daniel Howes: Gettelfinger can't tell it like it really is

Tuesday being Day One of the UAW's bargaining convention, you'd expect President Ron Gettelfinger to talk tough to 1,500 delegates facing the biggest threat matrix since the union's rocky inception 70 years ago.

You'd expect him to say "collective bargaining is not collective begging and where we have demonstrated cooperation it would be a grave mistake to equate our actions to capitulation."

You'd expect him to say the union doesn't want to strike, but is prepared to do just that if General Motors, Ford Motor and the Chrysler Group -- which he didn't name in this context, but didn't have to -- treat collective bargaining as "a one-way street."

You'd expect mild-mannered Gettelfinger to again come unhinged over Delphi Corp.'s allegedly "mechanical bankruptcy" and Chairman Robert S. "Steve" Miller's "intention" to file before bankruptcy law changed and "disturbed" a $388 million executive bonus plan.

That Miller, alone among Detroit auto CEOs who have cut tens of thousands of union jobs, warrants so much attention in a union speech is either evidence that a) Delphi's bankruptcy is the watershed fundamentally changing the industry or b) this has become personal for the UAW chief or c) both.

I'll take "c," and add that Gettelfinger's veiled disgust for private-equity vultures "circling overhead" is union recognition that economic forces have fundamentally shifted for the UAW -- and that ain't good for the health of an institution those same sharpies have zero interest in perpetuating.

Belligerence begets demise?

Truth is, it wouldn't have come to this sorry pass, where Detroit's automakers and their largest union are in varying stages of fighting for their lives, if all sides had heeded clear signals from Wall Street and Main Street.

They didn't. The UAW is going into national bargaining talking tough and rallying the troops, as it must. But its leaders and, I'd guess, a big chunk if its members know that belligerence, entitlement and strikes would only hasten their demise in these very uncertain times.

How could they not know it? The refusal of UAW leaders to deliver retiree health care concessions to Chrysler that were delivered to GM and Ford accelerated the move by Chrysler's German parent to dump the Auburn Hills automaker.

Ford CEO Alan Mulally, his back to an operational wall, compiled a record during his years at Boeing Co. of facing down union members, even if doing so promised a strike -- as it did in 2005. And GM has made too much progress to be sand-bagged into preserving the past.

Go big or go home

Union politics being what they are, Gettelfinger couldn't stand before his delegates at Cobo Center and tell them where things really stand. If he could, it might go something like this:

"Brothers and sisters, this international union -- you, me, our predecessors who delivered the gains we enjoy today -- faces a fundamental test forged from the choices of those before us and the expectations of those who would follow us.

"We can either take this opportunity to be bold, to ensure that our pay, benefits and work rules make our employers as competitive as they can be. Or we can cling to the creeping incrementalism and denial that brought us to this point, that hastened bankruptcies, plant closings and record buyouts.

"This is our time to help save a Detroit industry that made us, our parents and grandparents the bedrock of the American middle class and, for a time, the envy of all industrial workers. When this time passes, as it will, we must be able to tell our children and ourselves that we did everything to save the companies that made us what we are.

"That's real solidarity."

Daniel Howes' column runs Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Reach him at (313) 222-2106, or

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