Ever since two of Detroit's three automakers emerged from bankruptcy six years ago, this town's eponymous auto industry has been trumpeting its model of new.
It's newly profitable at home, thanks to tough restructuring requiring shared sacrifice. Its metal is newly designed and desirable. Its relationship with organized labor is newly pragmatic and cooperative, alleged evidence of enlightened management and union leadership.
After decades of "going out of business," as former Ford Motor Co. CEO Alan Mulally often said, Detroit automakers and the United Auto Workers are running according to normal business principles, hewing to the basic laws of economics. Gone for good is the peculiar Detroit version skilled at destroying enormous amounts of capital, right?
Starting next week, both sides get the opportunity to show just how new that New Detroit really is. For the first time since 2007, national contract talks will take place without the specter of imminent financial collapse or the bullying of a federal government protecting its taxpayer-funded bailout and driving its environmental agenda.
The stakes could be higher, like they were in 2008 and 2009, but the symbolism could not be. Investors and bureaucrats, customers and employees, will be looking for evidence that the bad, old days really are dead and buried. Or whether they aren't, precursors to more pain in the next downturn.
Proof will be in what both sides do in bargaining between now and mid-September, not increasingly heated rhetoric as the deadline nears, union members grow anxious and some take to social media in ways they could not during the '07 talks and before.
If there's a wild card in this year's talks, its the power of Facebook and Twitter to turn rumor into fact. In seconds, as UAW leaders have repeatedly warned their own bargaining teams, old information and discarded proposals overheard at the dinner table or in a union local office can be spread by anyone with a smartphone, an iPad and the urge to emote.
Expect that to fuel more than a few media frenzies over the next few months. A process shaped for decades by strategic leaks from both sides, a solid understanding of the industry and old-fashioned relationship building will be forced to contend with information flows it cannot easily control.
There are other risks and potential flashpoints as both sides encounter something else entirely new: managing prosperity, not decades of decline, in their home market. A welcome change, that, but it will not be easy to meet the expectations of various constituencies, chiefly UAW members and Wall Street.
Looming will be unresolved product allocation decisions for key plants, such as Ford's Michigan Assembly in Wayne and Chrysler's trademark Wrangler plant in Toledo; the threat of investment in Mexico as bargaining leverage over sites in the States; and global instability in places like Europe and China that could alter expectations for the booming U.S. market.
Success carries its own cost. Even as Ford, General Motors Co. and FCA US LLC's Chrysler unit booked a combined $67.7 billion in North American profits during the life of the four-year contract expiring in September — an enormous total, considering the troubled arc of the past 15 years — GM and Ford, in particular, still lag the all-in labor costs of FCA and their Japanese rivals.
The tension: GM and Ford need to make progress on closing the cost gap, even as UAW bargainers will be pushing to "bridge the gap" between the hourly rate earned by so-called legacy employees and second-tier employees who get substantially less pay for doing the same jobs.
Something will have to give, and the smart money is on the automakers recognizing that they cannot expect new, four-year deals to be ratified without base-wage increases — most likely different percentage increases — for both groups of workers.
None of this will happen in a vacuum. Despite the positive change of the past six years, despite the profits and product plaudits, Detroit's two largest players enter the talks trailing most of the industry in all-in labor costs. FCA CEO Sergio Marchionne and his boss, FCA Chairman John Elkann, are openly lobbying for a partner to help them navigate a fraught future.
The UAW, under President Dennis Williams and a mostly new crew of vice presidents, faces a delicate balance. They aim for a bigger chunk of profits for their members without a confrontation that would sully a carefully cultivated image as a "mature" labor union, as one insider said, and would complicate efforts to organize auto plants in the South.
This is a test of a New Detroit. Here, the actions of management and labor should demonstrate an understanding that hyper-competition is a fact of life to be continually managed — and never ignored.
Daniel Howes' column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays and can be found at http://detroitnews.com/staff/27151.