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UAW Losing Pay Edge: Foreign Automakers' Bonuses Boost Wages in U.S. Plants as Detroit Car Companies Struggle
February 1, 2007
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From Detroit Free Press

The UAW is losing its edge in pay compared with non-unionized U.S. assembly plant workers for foreign companies, even as Detroit automakers aim for deeper benefit cuts to trim their losses.

In at least one case last year, workers for a foreign automaker for the first time averaged more in base pay and bonuses than UAW members working for domestic automakers, according to an economist for the Center for Automotive Research and figures supplied to the Free Press by auto companies.

In that instance, Toyota Motor Corp. gave workers at its largest U.S. plant bonuses of $6,000 to $8,000, boosting the average pay at the Georgetown, KY, plant to the equivalent of $30 an hour. That compares with a $27 hourly average for UAW workers, most of whom did not receive profit-sharing checks last year. Toyota would not provide a U.S. average, but said its 7,000-worker Georgetown plant is representative of its U.S. operations.

Honda Motor Co. and Nissan Motor Co. are not far behind Toyota and UAW pay levels. Comparable wages have long been one way foreign companies fight off UAW organizing efforts.

But Toyota workers' pay topping that of UAW members comes as the union faces contract negotiations this year with struggling Detroit companies that will seek billions in concessions, partly because they face higher costs for retiree health care and pensions than their foreign-owned competitors.

Who's to blame?

UAW Region 8 Director Gary Casteel said if Toyota workers were paid more than union workers last year, the blame lies with Detroit's auto executives. The companies have lost market share because of past mistakes, which have translated into fewer bonuses for workers, said Casteel, who is on the union's executive board.

"Our profit-sharing formula, I know, is better than theirs -- if our vehicles are selling," Casteel said.

Ron Lare, a 59-year-old Ford employee on pre-retirement leave, said Toyota workers shouldn't get too excited about their wages because bonuses fluctuate. The only thing consistent, Lare said, is union protection.

"The floor beneath their feet is basically what the UAW has won," said Lare of Detroit, who has worked at Ford for 28 1/2 years. "If the UAW gets beaten down, their pay is going to come down. You let there be a real recession in the auto industry -- that bonus won't be there for Toyota, either."

Union perks vs. nonunion perks

The pay comparisons reflect the relative profitability of the foreign and domestic companies more than shortcomings of the UAW. But the situation chips at the argument that workers united in solidarity can get better wages, benefits and job security -- especially as the UAW shrinks and growing foreign companies continue to ward off organizing efforts.

"How do you convince someone you're better off with the protection of a union when they're making more money than the union employee?" asked Alfred McLean, a 66-year-old hourly UAW member at General Motors Corp.'s Warren Tech Center. He has 28 years of experience.

Workers for foreign automakers don't pay union dues, but they do share the costs of insurance and retirement plans. UAW-represented autoworkers get health insurance and a full pension after 30 years -- valuable perks they will fight to keep during contract negotiations this year.

But even accounting for Toyota employees' health care spending -- $700 per year on average, according to the company -- the Georgetown workers still made more in 2006.

General Motors Corp., which lost $10.6 billion in 2005 and didn't issue profit-sharing checks last year, paid its production workers an average of $27 an hour, GM spokesman Daniel Flores said. That would be a base of about $54,000 a year, based on a 2,000-hour work year. The $30 average at Toyota's Georgetown plant, which includes a bonus, equals $60,000 a year.

Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler Group representatives said GM's base pay figures are similar to theirs. Only Chrysler, which had a 2005 profit, paid a bonus last year. The $650 bonus was not enough to surpass Toyota's pay.

Unknown in the calculation is overtime, which boosts UAW workers' pay. The auto companies would not release overtime data.

Lack of overtime hurts

Ron Harbour, president of Harbour Consulting and the publisher of a respected ranking of plant efficiency, said domestic overtime is dropping because of improved quality and recent production cuts.

"Because there was so much overtime for so many years, they got used to that level of pay," Harbour said. "And it built the economy around here that's collapsed so much -- second homes, boats, snowmobiles and all of that."

Toyota's bonuses are comparable to the record profit-sharing checks earned by Chrysler and Ford workers in the late 1990s. That puts the pay of Toyota's workers ahead of that of UAW workers for the first time, said Sean McAlinden, chief economist for the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor.

But when massive profits rolled in, Detroit executives squandered them, he said.

"There were certainly years back then at the profit peak of the truck boom when we could gaily march out the door and buy Volvo, or Jaguar, or Saab -- brilliant moves -- with our truck profits, rather than invest in hybrids," McAlinden quipped about GM's and Ford's spending decisions.

GM's aim is to resume profit-sharing, Flores said.

"When profit is generated in the U.S., employees share in the profit," he said.

When asked about salaried workers earning bonuses because of UAW sacrifices last week, Ford CEO Alan Mulally said that all employees must be compensated competitively.

The 'union threat effect'

Harley Shaiken, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who specializes in labor issues, said Toyota's high wages are somewhat expected.

"Toyota pays high wages in part to avoid the UAW," Shaiken said, adding that economists would refer to Toyota's high wages as the "union threat effect," meaning companies pay union-comparable wages to fend off organizing efforts and the risk of a strike.

"But what Toyota inadvertently shows," he added, "is that you can compete paying higher wages."

Assembly workers for Detroit automakers last year remained a bit ahead of Honda's U.S. hourly workers, who made an average $24.25 an hour, or $26.20 with the $4,485 bonus they received. In November, Honda paid bonuses for the 21st consecutive year, the longest streak in U.S. auto history, said Ed Miller, Honda spokesman.

Nissan workers are paid $24 an hour in Mississippi and $26 an hour in Tennessee, but company officials would not disclose employee bonuses.

Hyundai Motor Co. pays its U.S. production workers less than other automakers. Wages at its Alabama plant start at $14 an hour and grow to $21 an hour after two years on the job, according to a January 2004 company release. Hyundai declined to say whether those wages have increased since then.

But the UAW's Casteel, who is working to organize autoworkers in southern states, said the UAW's recruiting strategy of comparing union and nonunion checks doesn't work in less-developed parts of the South. In Alabama and Mississippi, for instance, the U.S. Department of Labor says wages average less than $11 an hour.

"If you start looking at where they put these plants, they go out to the most desolate places you've ever been in your life," Casteel, an Alabama native, said of foreign automakers. "And they make sure there are no other competitive wages with any other industry. You'll drive through these piney woods for an hour and all of a sudden you run upon this major manufacturing facility."

Copyright (c) 2007, Detroit Free Press