One can't help notice that "certain elements" in the political discourse are blaming the travails of the domestic auto industry on the fact that it is largely unionized. I consider this a political position rather than one that is justified by the facts.
Certainly there may be terms locked in from previous contract negotiations (when things were more rosy) that are no longer appropriate. Perhaps "job banking" - the practice of keeping laid off workers on salary until their jobs can be re-filled - doesn't work any longer. But the "shock, shock" that an auto worker can make $100,000 a year (working plenty of overtime) strikes me as rather hypocritical coming from people who don't blink an eye at the CEO making $14 million a year (14 million = 140 $100K line workers) or however many VPs or department heads making $250,000 per year and up. Can one look at the condition of the industry and truly claim that these management-types are twice or three times or 140 times more valuable that the worker on the line? And anyway, the unions in recent years have been quite ready to renogotiate, even give back, when they believe the overall health of the industry is at stake.
It wasn't the unions who decided not to produce fuel efficient cars. While they may have been part of the lobbying effort to postpone fuel efficiency regulations, I'm sure they bought into the management rhetoric that this was the way to maximum profits, meaning maximum jobs. These companies are not cooperatives, and the unions didn't make the decisions that led the industry to the dire straits it finds itself in today.
As to the argument that it is pension and health care costs that are bankrupting the industry, of that I have no doubt. But the reason that's a problem is that the industry's international competitors, particularly in Japan, have these costs absorbed by the society as a whole, meaning the government, which means the auto companies themselves don't have to include these costs in the price of a car. The answer to the lack of competitiveness stemming from this is to absorb the pension and medical costs into society, not (as the Fox-ists would have it) to rip these protections away from the few workers in this country that have them.
And that's why it's a political issue rather than an economic one. Unions support Democrats, so Republicans are not about to do anything to save union jobs, no matter what the impact on society as a whole. Then there is the issue of the Employee Free Choice Act, which is supposed to be on Congress' docket in the next term - a lot of this, I am convinced, is propaganda against that legislation. And I'm sorry to say it, but if this legislation passes, or if Obama spends any significant political capital in support of it, I'll eat my kippah.
It's amazing to me how anti-union the mood is in the country is right now. Problems in the schools, blame the teachers' unions. Problems in the industrial sector, blame the industrial unions. People are so worried about their own jobs that they treat it as offensive to them that there are people in the country whose jobs are better protected. But as progressive economists such as Jared Bernstein point out, unions are the main way that we have to redress the ridiculous, immoral and counterproductive income inequality in this country. We should be a little more circumspect before we demand that they be put out of business.