DETROIT - The Ford Motor Company is celebrating the fact that its Fusion Hybrid was named "car of the year" by Motor Trend. But the award will bring little comfort to unemployed autoworkers. The Fusion is not made in the United States.
"What's ironic to me, as the years go by, there's less and less union production on the cars being exhibited in the center of this union industry," said United Auto Workers retiree Frank Hammer outside the industry's annual auto show here. "All of them (GM, Ford and Chrysler) are more and more non-union."
Hammer, organizer of the autoworker caravan that traveled to Washington in 2008 to lobby for aid to the auto industry, was joined by other autoworkers and their supporters in a protest outside the North American International Auto Show. The protesters had this message: the auto industry and government must address workers' concerns on jobs, health care, climate change and the need to build the mass transit industry.
The loss of jobs, whether it be to Europe, Asia, South America, or non-union plants here in the United States, is a major reason why Detroit's unemployment rate is almost 50 percent and Michigan's is officially 15 percent and in reality much higher.
The autoworkers also came to counter "tea-baggers" who showed up to protest the appearance of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the government's intervention, and use of tax money, to save the auto industry.
"If the tea-baggers had had their way, there would have been no government loans to GM and Chrysler and where would we be? They are not speaking for autoworkers," said Hammer. But he added, loans to GM and Chrysler should be used "for a much faster transformation addressing climate change." The tea-baggers, he noted, are not talking about climate change - "they don't even know it exists."
Conversion of closed plants to other productive uses was on the minds of many. Steve Babson, retired American Federation of Teachers member and former staff member at Wayne State University's Labor Studies Center, said that former autoworkers have tremendous skills that are a valuable resource, even more so than the machinery in the shuttered plants.
"Maybe not so much the equipment but the skills of people working with metal, carbon fiber," Babson said. "That's the vital resource. There are a lot of very big buildings that are empty. But the key resource is workers."
If bailout money goes to banks, it should go with strings attached, he said. "This money should be targeted for investments that are going to rebuild the economy on a sustainable basis."
Wendy Thompson had in mind a specific plant she felt would be ideal for "green" production. Thompson, the past president of UAW Local 235 at American Axle, said axle plants and the equipment they have are suitable for production of windmills.
"Rather than there being a brain drain and everyone forced to leave the area, autoworkers should be getting those jobs," said Thompson.
Ron Lare, who retired in 2008 from the Ford Rouge plant, was particularly upset about health care. The Ford retiree, who worked on the assembly line for 11 years before getting into tool and die, warned that thousands of children formerly covered under the union's insurance program are going to lose health care coverage.
If a child has a grandparent with union retirement benefits who is the child's principal supporter (and the grandparent proves it with a 1040 tax return form), past practice has allowed the child to be covered under the grandparents' health care plan, Lare noted.
"Ford workers just voted down concessions and suddenly we get this sneak attack during the Christmas holiday that the 1040 saying you're the person supporting this child is no longer good enough."
Lare pointed out that a parent would now be forced to give up a child for adoption by the grandparent so coverage would continue.
"We don't know who made this decision - it was probably the VEBA board," he said, referring to the separate board that now manages workers' health benefits.
Contrary to what some people think, the union is a minority on the VEBA board and is not responsible for this cut, said Lare. He added, "It really makes my blood boil because somebody is sitting up in the office making decisions to cut kids off health care."
Glancing over at the tea-baggers, General Baker, longtime UAW activist, commented, "These people over here are opposing the bailout of Chrysler and GM. I think the government did the right thing. iIn fact we should nationalize GM and Chrysler. They got most of it now, take the rest of it and have the government run it because they can't do worse."
As he talked autoworkers were chanting, "Union jobs for you and me, not some lousy cup of tea."
Photo: PW/John Rummel