Winners, Losers and American Car Buyers

by on Oct.20, 2011

Who won when GM and the UAW hammered out a new contract? Do consumers really care?

The trouble with our winners-losers society is that it often misses the point of the game.

Consider the recently concluded talks between the United Auto Workers union and Detroit’s car companies.

Critics of those agreements contend that the manufacturers got four years of labor peace for little or nothing. They are missing the point, which is this:

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The American consumer, the third and most important party at the bargaining table, does not give a damn.

As long as that remains the case, the UAW should be happy to have any contract at all.

Here’s why:

The American consumer is selfish, perhaps self-destructively so. His/her primary concern is getting the best vehicle possible at the lowest cost possible. Anyone or anything that threatens that self-interest is anathema, including expensive labor agreements that could increase costs of vehicle development and assembly.

If General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler were the only companies making and selling cars in the United States, having that selfish consumer at the bargaining table would not be too much of a problem.

But the Detroit companies are struggling for their lives in the U.S. automobile market against well-funded, highly capable, non-UAW-represented, foreign rivals, including Audi, BMW, Honda, Hyundai, Kia, Mercedes-Benz, and Volkswagen.

Although it continues to try, the UAW has not organized one of those Detroit rivals. In terms of operating costs, that UAW failure puts the Detroit car companies at a big cost disadvantage.

Increasing that disadvantage with a juicy, UAW-rank-and-file pleasing labor agreement would be a disservice to the union, its manufacturers, and efforts to greatly reduce our country’s current, official 9.1 percent unemployment rate.

Again, the reason: The American consumer is selfish—selfish enough to make a buying decision that undermines both the longevity of the UAW and the Detroit companies it now represents.

If the Detroit companies do not have a car or truck the American consumer wants with the quality, safety, performance, fuel economy and price desired, that consumer readily will shop one of Detroit’s foreign, non-union rivals. The union label is not a concern in the buying decision.

That is the reality; and it is why so many Washington politicians, practically all of them from the Old South’s “right-to-work” states, fought so hard against the 2008 federal bail-out of Detroit’s car companies. They weren’t deliberately trying to kill GM, Ford, or Chrysler. They were trying to murder the UAW in a social and political environment where, they believed, that murder would go unnoticed, un-mourned, and certainly unpunished.

Thanks to a totally self-interested, apathetic electorate, theirs would have been the perfect crime.

Many of the same citizens who now complain about unemployment and low pay are the first to buy products made by companies whose pay is lower than that of union-represented rivals, and whose job security is proportionately minimal. Such people are the authors of their own economic demise, seeking the best stuff at the lowest price, even if the acquisition of that stuff harms the pay and job security of workers elsewhere.

Theirs, too, is a winners-take-all mentality that totally misses the point of the game. (Indeed, my advice to those people in the current “Occupy” movements is that they first take a look in the mirror.)

The UAW’s leaders were wise to settle in the manner they settled in recent contract negotiations with Detroit. The UAW’s membership was wise to accept those agreements. Now, with the Detroit negotiations behind it, the union can concentrate on the much more important work of educating the public about the political and practical value of union membership; and organizing Detroit’s foreign rivals.

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3 Responses to “Winners, Losers and American Car Buyers”

  1. Dukecati says:

    Dear Mr. Brown,

    If you just take off the UAW-fogged goggles, and un-glue your lips from their ass, you’ll be able to see better…

  2. r123t says:

    Well said, Mr. Brown. Unfortunately, Duke, you are exactly the kind of person Mr. Brown is speaking to. To make it clearer, unless you are in the top 1% of the top 1%, I’m betting you make decisions daily that make your own economic well-being more tenuous. They say no man is an island. You evidently think you are the exception. Best of luck to you.

  3. Dukecati says:

    Spoken like a true hardcore union lifer, r123t. The UAW’s heyday was 40 years ago – get used to it.


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