The Politics of $40 Billion Cars

Posted by HOLMAN W. JENKINS, JR. - Wall Street Journal

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President Obama rightly says “sacrifices” must be made if GM is to emerge as a viable company. But there’s one sacrifice he won’t make: his re-election chances, by leaving the fate of the UAW truly up to a bankruptcy judge.

Keep that in mind amid the defenestration of Rick Wagoner, who was not as popular with UAW Chief Ron Gettelfinger as Mr. Wagoner’s replacement, Fritz Henderson. Keep that in mind amid reports the administration favors a “quick and surgical” bankruptcy. It’s a bluff. The same administration that inserted itself into GM’s corporate governance to order the resignation of a CEO is hardly likely to defer to the prescribed legal order for a failing company, namely bankruptcy. Even a “prepackaged” filing runs too much risk of a judge imposing more “sacrifice” on the UAW than the administration is prepared to tolerate.
GM bondholders understand this: They’ve been intransigent precisely because they calculate the UAW is too important to Democratic electoral politics for Mr. Obama to risk losing control of the reorganization process to a bankruptcy judge.

The GM bailout has become a political operation run out of the White House. It will stay that way. Talk of UAW layoffs already disguises the fact that UAW workers are actually offered generous buyouts and early retirement — they aren’t just sent away with a last paycheck. What about Chrysler? A few weeks ago, Fiat was saying it would consider a merger if a loan from Washington was guaranteed. Now Washington is saying a loan will be forthcoming as long as Fiat does a deal. That’s not an ultimatum — that’s a nod and a wink.

Mr. Wagoner did more than any GM executive to deal with the cursed legacy of 75 years of too much government attention. Not for him, though, and not for Team Obama, the real solution to make GM “viable”: Getting rid of its North American business to end its UAW captivity.

That captivity, imposed by the 1935 Wagner Act, is the sole relevant factor distinguishing the Detroit Three from the world’s other auto makers. The result is downright weird: “Our” auto companies operate in a world that’s less “American,” in a sense, than the Japanese and German companies that come here and enjoy a free labor market.

The Wagner world was given a second lease on life by a peculiar feature of Congress’s 1975 fuel economy law. Known as the “two fleets” rule, it effectively forces Detroit to make its cheap small cars in high-wage domestic UAW factories, even if it means losing money on every car. The rule has no fuel-economy function. Its only purpose is to shield the UAW monopoly inside each Detroit auto maker from global labor competition.

You wouldn’t have noticed, but a legislative accident two years ago almost stripped away the two fleets rule. A couple of Republican senators from the South took the lead in crafting the Senate’s new fuel economy bill, and built it to please Nissan, which had railed against two fleets for its own reasons.

In the final bill, to no one’s surprise, two fleets was quietly restored by Rep. John Dingell and Illinois Sen. Obama (among others) as a political favor to the United Auto Workers.

The UAW’s Mr. Gettelfinger had testified, coyly, during Congressional hearings that failing to renew two fleets might cost 17,000 auto workers jobs building small cars. He didn’t say that two fleets is in fact the fulcrum by which, for the past 30 years, the UAW has been able to defeat globalization.

He didn’t say two fleets was the sine qua non for the past generation of the UAW’s power to suck the Big Three dry.

Mr. Obama played the tough guy in getting rid of Mr. Wagoner, but he won’t go after the labor monopoly. In fact, the union will emerge with a stronger grip on Detroit — because it will be a major shareholder in a reorganized GM.

The irony is that Detroit has given plenty of evidence that it can make money, even with UAW overhead. Three of the top seven best-selling vehicles in February were Ford, Chevy and Dodge pickups.

Better than trying to rewrite GM’s business relationships — the job of a bankruptcy judge — Mr. Obama might take up the duties of a president. He might try giving the country a coherent auto policy for a change. He could repeal two fleets so Detroit could build its small cars profitably offshore and tame the UAW monopoly in the process. He could dump CAFE or impose a $5 gasoline tax so at least customers would have a reason to buy the cars Washington is forcing Detroit to build.

None of this will happen. Mr. Obama will be content with incoherent policies that poll well — which means GM, Chrysler and perhaps Ford eventually will need taxpayer subsidies as far as the eye can see — or until a real bankruptcy sometime after November 2012.

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