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US Autoworkers Voice Frustrations, Suggestions on Auto Restructuring


As Congress and the Bush administration continued negotiations on a $15 billion loan for U.S. auto companies, a group of autoworkers traveled to Washington to draw attention to their concerns about the future of the American auto industry.

Members of the United Auto Workers and other labor unions appeared at a news conference on Capitol Hill Monday as lawmakers and the White House were negotiating details of a loan package for General Motors, Ford and Chrysler.

They came not only from Michigan, where the companies are based, but also from Indiana, Ohio, New York and other states where tens of thousands of Americans work directly in or contribute to automobile production.

All urged Congress and the Bush administration to approve the loan, which is now less than half of the $34 billion originally requested by the "Big Three" car companies.

But their main goal was to combat the assertion by auto industry executives and other critics that a large portion of the blame for the industry's inefficiencies and financial weakness can be placed on the shoulders of high cost union workers.

Frank Hammer, a retired president of the United Auto Workers union, or UAW, Local 909 in Detroit, says now is the time for big solutions, not criticisms of workers.

"The reality is that our labor constitutes just eight percent of the price of a new car," he said. "We could work for free and it would not solve the crisis."

Tony Browning has worked for more than 34 years in a Chrysler plant in Sterling Heights, Michigan.

"People are giving the auto industry a bad reputation," he said. "They are saying we are lazy, we are overpaid and under worked. But that is far from the truth."

The workers contrasted federal money that General Motors, Ford and Chrysler are seeking with the hundreds of billions of dollars the government quickly came up with for banks and financial institutions.

Bill Alfred, President of UAW Local 235 in Michigan, says the government needs to help the U.S. auto industry survive the current financial storm.

"It's just ridiculous that the auto industry is getting tormented over getting a fraction of the money we have given Wall Street," he said. "And that was a blank check. It was [for Wall Street] a walk in, take the money, and walk out."

Wendy Thompson, a retired former president of UAW Local 235 in Michigan, says the federal government should provide oversight of the auto industry as it attempts to transform itself.

Among her suggestions: retooling factories to focus on rebuilding America's transportation system.

"Remember World War II? Do you know your history? Auto plants transformed into making airplanes and other war products overnight," said Thompson. "Why can't we do this again? It's another crisis. Let's start making mass transportation; let's start doing light rail [and] speed trains. We can do that work; we're skilled workers; we have shown that we have the capabilities. Let us do that work."

Mark Deagle and Steven Waskul are auto industry workers in Michigan.

[If] you start closing these plants, you're not only going to affect them, you're going to affect our membership, you're going to affect the suppliers, you're going to affect a lot of Americans," Deagle said.

"Nobody has mentioned rail cars that transport the vehicles throughout the country. Nobody has mentioned the car haulers. Nobody has mentioned all the people, the peripheral people, who are involved in the auto industry," Waskul said.

When they received auto company restructuring proposals last week, U.S. lawmakers also heard from experts about the effect of potential bankruptcy by any or all of the Big Three companies - something a government loan is aimed at preventing.

David Friedman, Research Director for the Clean Vehicles Program of the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the question is whether U.S. automakers can change.

"We need to acknowledge what we already know," he said. "The survival of the Detroit auto industry depends on their ability to deliver the products consumers need in a world of volatile oil prices and a changing climate."

Key points in auto company loan legislation include strong government oversight to ensure that companies implement restructuring plans.

Representative Barney Frank, Chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, says change will require significant sacrifices and compromise.

"There would be requirements that the various parties here, the stakeholders - whether they are the bond holders or the workers or the shareholders or the top rank employees - that all of them are going to have to make some kind of sacrifice in this," he said. "There will have to be contributions from all sides."

House of Representative Speaker Nancy Pelosi says that if by early next year - in the early months of President-elect Barack Obama's administration - companies are not meeting conditions, they should not expect what she calls "an endless flow of money".

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