June 3, 2009 at 1:00 am

Ron Gettelfinger: Labor Voices

Commentary: Automakers get chance to rebuild

Fixing trade, health policies remains key to sustainability

The General Motors Orion assembly plant is scheduled to be idled, but it is under consideration as a site for the manufacture of small, fuel-efficient autos. (Carlos Osorio / Associated Press)

These are perilous times for America's auto industry.

All of Chrysler's plants are shuttered, as are many of General Motors Corp.'s facilities. While members of our union, civic leaders and supporters are working to save as many plants and jobs as possible, the harsh reality is that not all of those plants will reopen.

Both Chrysler and GM will close hundreds of dealerships, costing tens of thousands of additional jobs. Many supplier firms are in bankruptcy and retirees throughout the industry are concerned about the future of their health care.

In the face of these enormous challenges, it's important to note what our union and our industry has accomplished in recent months:

  • Chrysler will finalize its alliance with Fiat and emerge from bankruptcy as a restructured company with an improved balance sheet.

  • GM is entering bankruptcy with a newly ratified labor agreement and understandings with major stakeholders. There are still significant risks as the court process unfolds, but the agreements already reached give GM a chance to rebuild from an enhanced competitive position.

  • Our recent labor agreements with Chrysler, Ford and GM will save the companies billions of dollars. And our agreements with Chrysler and GM include commitments from both firms to build small, fuel-efficient cars here in the United States.

  • Last month, with active support from our union, the White House announced a historic accord on fuel economy and greenhouse gas emissions. A single national standard will set aside the false choice between protecting our jobs and our environment; with smart policies, we can have both. The new standard will be stringent, but fair for all manufacturers, requiring higher mileage and lower emissions from all models of cars and trucks.

  • As we adjust to a changing industry, an initiative begun by our union in 2003 is beginning to bear fruit. Six years ago, when gas prices were lower and the domestic automakers were healthier, UAW members began lobbying for a "Marshall Plan" for the U.S. auto industry.

    Even then, we could see that the U.S. auto industry needed a new emphasis on fuel efficiency and public support was needed to make the required investments. In 2007, Congress authorized the Advanced Technology Vehicle Manufacturing Incentive Program as part of a comprehensive energy bill; $25 billion in funding was appropriated in 2008.

    The U.S. Department of Energy now has 75 applications from automakers, battery producers and other manufacturers who are planning to build new facilities or retool existing ones to bring 21st-century green technology to our shores.

    These developments show a path toward a sustainable industry that can provide jobs for workers and communities as well as affordable, fuel-efficient transportation for consumers. But the domestic automakers are still stressed and will remain so as long as auto sales are suppressed by the severe global recession, which has reduced consumer spending power.

    Can Chrysler, Ford and GM succeed once the economy recovers and consumers start buying cars again?

    Not if we settle for the status quo.

    A long-term commitment to U.S. manufacturing requires action to address America's failed health care system, which adds cost to every vehicle made here. We must also address our unbalanced trade policies, which deliver hidden subsidies to every car or truck imported from overseas.

    Changing these policies won't be easy, but nothing we've confronted in recent months has been easy.

    If industry stakeholders will continue to work together, we can set the stage for a renewal of U.S. manufacturing, including a revived domestic auto industry.

    Ron Gettelfinger is president of the United Auto Workers, whose health care trust fund owns 55 percent of Chrysler's stock and 17.5 percent of General Motors' stock. Mail comments to The News, Letters, Editorial Page, 615 W. Lafayette, Detroit, MI 48226 or e-mail them to letters@detnews.com">letters@detnews.com.