June 3, 2009

Generous (?) Motors

This is the full text of a letter I recently sent to some local newspapers.

As General Motor’s announces bankruptcy, repeatedly, blame is cast towards the UAW and labor unions.

I liken what is happening to a wealthy parent who didn’t say “no” in time. It rarely gets mentioned when unions are attacked that all wages and benefits given to the employees are clearly outlined in a mutually agreed upon legally binding contract. There isn’t a union agreement in this nation that isn’t signed by both management and labor and authenticated by the government. That creates a system of checks and balances; a microism of our national government. This is the core of collective bargaining. Management agrees to the contractual terms as readily as the union.

To be part of a contract negotiation is no picnic. It is equally nerve wracking for either side. Every proposal is filled with opportunity, in the truest sense of capitalism. “How much can we make?” resonates on both sides. Like dealing with a rug merchant, the object is to get the best possible deal. Unlike a rug merchant, there is the future to consider. Again, I liken the bankruptcy to irresponsible parenting.

I am not suggesting the UAW is blameless. But casting blame is failure to accept responsibility in the situation. For one party to have “too much”, the other party must overindulge. Management had many chances to stand strong over the past 70 years. Closing the door after the horse ran away seems rather futile.

Unions are the best way a working class can achieve a level of life that is respectable. Management acted as an uninvolved, overly indulgent parent that threw money at its employees to keep them content. When the well ran dry, they punished their children for drinking the seemingly unending supply of water. Rather than find more water together, the companies took their bucket and found less thirsty children, abandoning the ones that had been quenched.

But to blame the unions for drinking all the water without blaming those who let the bucket splash all over the ground is unfair. They got in this mess together. Management and Labor need to come back down the hill with a full bucket of water so nobody goes thirsty.


  1. Yo Kimbo!

    I agree with you to a certain point. Here is where I depart from your analogy of the over-indulgent parent and the petulant, spoiled child. I don't think th UAW would appreciate being likened to a child and the management of a publicly-traded corporation should not be expected to be "parent to the child".

    They each come to the bargaining table with understandable objects. Management is (or should be) looking to strike a deal which keeps their company whole, keeps their annual earnings strong and treats their employees equitably. Labor is (or should be) looking to get the best deal for their membership without bankrupting or financially weakening the company. Throughout history we have seen excesses by both sides

    My management experience was with Procter & Gamble. P&G had union plants and in the case of the newer plants the plants were generally non-union. P&G has learned to perform and generate profit in either environment. Employees at P&G have done very well under both systems. But this could not have been true if P&G had not been forward looking with its products research, its aggressive brand management, its investment in great marketing and advertising, its solid employee recruitment methods and its efficient manufacturing technology. But one of the most important factors that I observed during my three decades with the company was its desire to do right by employees. This may have changed since I retired, but when I was a manager with P&G I clearly understood how important fair treatment and respect of our employee team was to our success.

    Good business comes down to treating everyone (employees, shareholders, customers, suppliers, vendors, et al) fairly, treating them with respect and managing in such a way as to protect earnings and jobs. At P&G, our number one rule (management and non-management) was "Do the right thing." I heard this rule the first day I went to work and many times thereafter. I heard it repeated by managers and technicians alike. It permeated the P&G culture.

  2. This is one for the record books. I totally agree with everything you said, and I speak from a union viewpoint.

    Unfortunately, greed trickles down and up, and I think everyone lost sight of what they originally set out to do, make quality vehicles. Instead the goal became, "get as much money as possible", and now... well you only have to read the paper.

    I'm still in shock, we are in complete accord. See, the lion (or tiger) shall lay down with the lamb. :)


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