Start at 18, Retire at 48, Spend More Yrs. Getting Pension, Free Health Care Than Yrs. Working
In the early 1970s, Detroit agreed to let auto workers retire with full pension and benefits after 30 years on the job, regardless of their age. In practice, that meant a worker could start at age 18, retire at 48, and spend more years collecting a pension and free health care than he or she actually spent working. It wasn't long before even union officials realized they had created a monster.
The 30-and-out retirement program persists -- a sacred part of the inflated cost structure that makes it unprofitable for Detroit to make small cars in America. Another example: Every Detroit factory still has dozens of union committeemen -- the bargaining committee, shop committee, health and safety committee, recreation committee, etc. -- who actually are paid by the car companies. This is a "legacy cost" that the nonunion Japanese, German and Korean car factories in America don't have to carry.
So why were these problems allowed to fester, when smart people recognized them all along? The answer is that the solutions were painful, requiring not just brains but considerable amounts of courage. UAW officials weren't brave enough to risk re-election defeat by agreeing to curtail the 30-and-out plan. Detroit executives weren't about to take on the union and risk a strike that could cost them billions.
The purpose of bankruptcy -- either a plain-vanilla Chapter 11 or a special-flavor version that would require a new federal law -- wouldn't be to punish Detroit's car companies. It would be to give them a chance to survive, just as radical surgery, however painful, often saves the lives of sick patients. And as their latest restructuring plans make clear, General Motors and Chrysler are very sick indeed.
~Paul Ingrassia in today's WSJ