Revival of U.S. automaking awaits if UAW will follow Toyota
General Motors and Chrysler are on the anvil of history. United Auto Workers President Ron Gettelfinger holds the hammer and will determine whether they emerge more competitive or shattered in pieces and sold to foreign investors.
In December, George W. Bush granted $17.4 billion in temporary loans on the condition those firms convert two-thirds of their debt into equity. Another condition was to persuade the UAW to accept stock for one half of what these companies owe to fund retiree health care and align wages, benefits and work rules with those of the Japanese automakers operating in the United States.
GM and Chrysler must complete these negotiations by March 31 or repay the money and face bankruptcy.
At U.S.-based Toyota factories, workers receive about $25 dollars an hour and good health care benefits. But they don’t retire at 50 after 30 years or get as much time off and huge severance packages. Toyota does not endure the medieval work rules and job classifications imposed by UAW contracts.
Most other Americans would be happy to get Toyota pay, benefits and working conditions. If Gettelfinger continues stubborn resistance to a better package than most Americans enjoy, then Detroit automakers will continue to require government subsidies or not have enough profits to invest and compete in hybrid and other new technologies that will transform personal transportation over the next decade.
Eventually, Washington will tire of their begging, they will march through bankruptcy, and their factories will be sold off to Japanese, Korean, European and Chinese automakers.
If Gettelfinger takes the Toyota package, then Washington should take a hard look at policies that can promote U.S. automaking as effectively as do industrial policies abroad.
This would include addressing undervalued currencies in Asia — currencies kept cheap in foreign exchange markets by government intervention in Japan, China and elsewhere.
Over the last two decades, Japan has kept the yen at least 30 percent undervalued against the dollar, and this provided Toyota with an average subsidy of at least $2,000 on every car it sold in the United States.
Through 2004, the Bank of Japan directly purchased dollars in currency markets to keep the yen undervalued, and since, it accomplished the same by keeping Japanese interest rates very low. This encouraged the so-called “carry trade,” where private investors borrow yen, use those to purchase dollars and then invest in short-term U.S. securities to exploit higher U.S. interest rates.
Now, the Federal Reserve has dramatically reduced U.S. interest rates, and the yen has risen closer to its true market value against the dollar. Japanese officials appear poised to again intervene directly in currency markets to restore Toyota’s unfair advantage, and Washington should take whatever steps are necessary to head off such Japanese protectionism.
In addition, Washington should take assertive steps to encourage production of fuel-efficient vehicles in the U.S. and create a strong export industry.
Washington could offer incentives to car buyers to trade in gas guzzlers for more fuel-efficient vehicles — the newer and the bigger the clunker and the more fuel-efficient the replacement, the more dollars the car buyer would receive if the guzzler is destroyed. This would raise the price carmakers receive from selling more fuel-efficient vehicles and boost car sales.
Washington could provide substantial product development assistance to U.S.-based automakers and suppliers. The latter include Toyota, Nissan and Honda, as well as the Detroit Three, battery makers and other suppliers to accelerate the production of innovative, high-mileage cars.
The condition for assistance would be that beneficiaries do their R&D and first large production runs in the United States, and share their patents at a reasonable cost with other companies manufacturing in the United States. The huge U.S. market would help attract producers from around the world and rejuvenate the U.S. auto supply chain.
Such smart industrial policies would contribute to national efforts to reduce CO2 emissions and reduce oil imports.
Finally, individual Americans should open their minds. Many are considering trading in trucks and SUVs for sedans and are naturally attracted to the Toyota Camry and similar import brands. Visit a Ford or Chevy showroom and test drive a Fusion or Malibu and be pleasantly surprised. Those are high-quality, affordable and reliable vehicles.
Washington is giving Detroit a second chance, and Americans should give its cars a second look.