Local autoworkers try to remain optimistic, insist they are not to blame for manufacturers' woes | St. Louis Public Radio

Local autoworkers try to remain optimistic, insist they are not to blame for manufacturers' woes

Dec 19, 2008

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 19, 2008 - Here's what the great auto industry meltdown of 2008 looks like to Darin Gilley, president of Local 1760 of the United Auto Workers: His local has gone from 650 to 15 current active members and is on the verge of dissolving; he is unemployed.

Gilley and members of his local have worked for the parts manufacturers who feed Chrysler minivan lines with dashboards, seats and door panels. Parts suppliers "are very integrated" with the auto manufacturers and are the first casualties when an auto plant shuts down.

"For us, it's not going to get better unless Chrysler brings the minivan back to the plant," Gilley said, adding there is a glimmer of hope given the Fenton plant's vintage and capabilities.

"That plant has just put $500 million in improvements: It's completely retooled and is the most flexible plant in the system," he said.

Gilley, at his most optimistic, said the retooled plant would be perfect "for green vehicles and electric hybrids."

The current state of affairs, however, weighs heavy on Gilley and hundreds of other autoworkers locally. Making matters worse, Gilley said, are allegations by many -- mostly among the "right" side of politics -- that the workers and their union are to blame for much of the auto manufacturers' seemingly sudden breakdown.

"That's an issue that really grinds my teeth. The entire labor cost for auto manufacturers in the U.S. is less than 10 percent of the overall cost of each vehicle," he said.

Who's to Blame?

The real blame, Gilley says, goes to federal trade policies that put American manufacturers at a disadvantage even in their own country. For example, he said, if a Japanese automaker wants to put a plant in Europe, 80 percent of the product content must come from the European country where the plant is located. In the U.S., only 35 percent of content must be local.

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But Gilley, about whom UAW Local 1360 financial secretary Glenn Kage said, "he can argue economics with any Harvard financial expert," said perhaps the biggest trade imbalance involving the auto industry is the billions of dollars in lost tax revenue for the U.S. by importing cars instead of making them here.

Using the industry statistic of 400,000 foreign car imports a year, if those cars were produced domestically, it would generate about $52 billion in taxes, Gilley said. "That's $52 billion that could be going to schools, roads, bridges, police, firefighters - thousands of jobs."

But it's not just trade policy, Gilley said "it's also tax policy, health care policy, manufacturing policy."

Kage, whose Local 136 represents 980 UAW members who work at the Chrysler plant in Fenton, said members are concerned in part because they have seen their numbers fall from 2,200 only a year ago. "They've seen the writing on the wall: force reduction and then plant closings."

Pride in Their Work

Kage said his members are bullish on their product: the Dodge Ram pickup truck. "It's a real nice truck, and we believe it will continue to sell well once people can get credit again," he said.

But Kage is realistic about the truck's prospects and knows that forces much larger than the auto industry will determine the future of sales. "Businesses are going under everywhere you look, and it's drastically reducing the manufacturing base in this country," he said.

Said Gilley: "We're going to destroy this country if we keep doing what we're doing."

Kage, Gilley and others have time to think about macroeconomics and history these days, as idled plants create idled lives -- at least for the next month until the Chrysler plant is scheduled to open again.

A Bailout Now -- but is there a Future?

On Friday, the president announced a bailout for the auto industry. GM and Chrysler will get $13.4 billion in immediate loans and $4 billion more in February, all tied to conditions on performance.

The union, Gilley said, stands at a threshold where it can remain vibrant or, like his local, dwindle in the wake of an unprecedented economic downturn that has landed on the auto industry.

"The big three, along with the unions, helped to create the middle class in this country," he said.

Gilley, unemployed and uncertain of his future, remains optimistic, with a caveat.

"I think the economy will come back and the stimulus package and the amount of money in the bailout.... I'm hoping there will be an economic rebound -- and trade programs that put our manufacturers on a level playing field.

"Most every nation protects its industries. That's what we need to do," he said.

Jim Orso is a freelance writer in St. Louis.