General Motors, Ford and Chrysler may have to enter into Bankruptcy to reduce their hourly cost of labor. Running out of cash may be the trigger that puts one or all of them into bankruptcy, but it will be a blessing in disguise.
One of their most significant problems is that their hourly labor costs are reportedly $20 to $30 per hour higher than their Japanese competitors. Some of the differential will be reduced with the UAW’s assumption of retiree health care with VEBA -- Voluntary Employee Beneficiary Association – beginning in 2010. This could reduce employee health insurance costs by one-third but will only produce a relatively small reduction in hourly labor costs. This won’t be enough - including consideration of the two-tier wage structure.
Most of the Japanese competitors have non-union hourly labor in their USA manufacturing operations. As such, their labor costs will not significantly increase over time. In fact, they will probably decrease because of higher capital investments with more effective productivity improvements.
By comparison, GM, Ford and Chrysler are at a distinct disadvantage. They are strapped for cash which severely limits their ability to invest capital for operating improvements. Recent plant closings and operational restructuring have reduced their overall costs by billions of dollars, as well as their hourly headcounts by the thousands. However, the overall impact is somewhat misleading. The hourly cost for direct labor employees has not been reduced. While the number of automobiles manufactured by the Big Three have declined in dramatic fashion, the actual cost of each automobile continues to be higher than its Japanese competition.
Will they be able to negotiate “voluntary” hourly labor cost reductions with the UAW?
One negative example from my turnaround experiences:
I was CEO of a legally insolvent, severely distressed manufacturing company. We asked the local union members to accept minor “voluntary” changes in the union labor contract. Specifically, we needed a delay in the contracted 3% increase in the base wage rate and an increase in the co-pay percentage for health insurance. These proposals were rejected by the local union leaders, although we had the International’s support for the changes. The local labor leaders proved indifferent to the company’s condition and were hostile to essential requests needed for the restructuring required to help save the company.
Admittedly this distressed company was not the size of GM, Ford or Chrysler. However experience suggests the UAW will not “voluntarily” agree to the significant reductions needed in hourly labor costs. (Which may require cuts as large as $10 per hour or more). Thus, the Big Three will be forced to attempt to terminate the labor agreement in Bankruptcy Court. If they fail to do so, they will continue to decline. And their future will offer even more desperate operating and financial conditions.