FDR, Wage Ceiling, Arsenal of Democracy, Benefits, Big Three, Japanese Competition, Legacy Costs, Business Cycle and Bailouts

Posted by PITHOCRATES - February 14th, 2012

History 101

After the Arsenal of Democracy defeated Hitler the Wage Ceiling was Gone but Generous Benefits were here to Stay

FDR caused the automotive industry crisis of 2008-2010.  With his progressive/liberal New Deal policies.  He placed a ceiling on employee wages during the Great Depression.  The idea was to keep workers’ wages low so employers would hire more workers.  It didn’t work.  And there was an unintended consequence.  As there always is when government interferes with market forces.  The wage ceiling prevented employers from attracting the best workers by offering higher wages.  Forcing employers to think of other ways to attract the best workers.  And they found it.  Benefits.

Adolf Hitler ended the Great Depression.  His bloodlust cut the chains on American industry as they tooled up to defeat him.  The Arsenal of Democracy.  America’s factories hummed 24/7 making tanks, trucks, ships, airplanes, artillery, ammunition, etc.  The Americans out-produced the Axis.  Giving the Allies marching towards Germany everything they needed to wage modern war.  While in the end the Nazis were using horses for transport power.  This wartime production created so many jobs that they even hired women to work in their factories.  Bringing an end to the Great Depression finally after 12 years of FDR.

The Arsenal of Democracy defeated Hitler.  U.S. servicemen came home.  And the women left the factories and returned home to raise families.  With much of the world’s factories in ruins the U.S. economy continued to hum.  Only they were now making things other than the implements of war.  The auto makers returned to making cars and trucks.  The ceiling on wages was gone.  But those benefits were still there.  Greatly increasing labor costs.  But what did they care?  The American auto manufacturers had a captive audience.  If anyone wanted to buy a car or truck there was only one place to buy it.  From them.  No matter the cost.  So they just passed on those high wages and expensive benefit packages on to the consumer.  Times were good.  The Fifties were happy times.  Good jobs.  Good pay.  Free benefits.  Nice life in the suburbs.  All paid for by expensive vehicle prices.

The Big Three could not Sell Cars when there was Competition because of their Legacy Costs

But it wouldn’t last.  Because it couldn’t last.  For those factories destroyed in the war were up and running again.  And someone noticed those high prices on American cars.  The Japanese.  Who rebuilt their factories.  Which were now humming, too.  And they thought why not enter the automotive industry?  And this changed the business model for the Big Three (GM, Ford and Chrysler) as they knew it.  The Big Three had competition for the first time.  Their captive audience was gone.  For the consumer had a choice.  They could demand better value for their money.  And chose not to buy the ‘rust buckets’ they were selling in the Seventies.  Cars that rusted away after a few snowy winters.  Or a few years near the ocean coast.

The new Japanese competition started about 30 years after U.S. workers began to enjoy all those benefits.  So the U.S. car companies paid their union auto workers more and gave them far more benefits than their Japanese competition.  And those early U.S. workers were now retiring.  Giving a great advantage to the Japanese.  Because those generous benefits provided those U.S. retirees very comfortable pensions.  And all the health care they could use.  All paid for by the Big Three.  Via the price of their cars and trucks.

Well, you can see where this led to.  The Big Three could not sell cars when there was competition.  Because of these legacy costs.  Higher union wages.  Generous pension and health care benefits that workers and retirees did not contribute to.  (By the time GM and Chrysler faced bankruptcy in 2010 there were more retirees than active union workers).  The United Automobile Workers (UAW) jobs bank program where unemployed workers (laid off due to declining sales) collected 95% of their pay and benefits.  (You can find many quotes on line from a Detroit News article stating some 12,000 UAW workers were collecting pay and benefits in 2005 but not working.)  The Japanese had none of these costs.  And could easily build a higher quality vehicle for less.  Which they did.  And consumers bought them.  The Big Three conceded car sales to the Japanese (and the Europeans and South Koreans) and focused on the profitable SUV and truck markets.  To pay these high legacy costs.  Until the gas prices soared to $4/gallon.  And then the Subprime Mortgage Crises kicked off the Great Recession.  Leading to the ‘bankruptcy’ of GM and Chrysler.  And their government bailouts.

The U.S. Automotive Government Bailout cut Wage and Benefits once Set in Stone

The Big Three struggled because they operated outside normal market forces.  Thanks at first to a captive audience.  Then later to friends in government (tariffs on imports, import quotas, union-favorable legislation, etc.).  All of this just delayed the day of reckoning, though.  And making it ever more painful when it came.

During economic downturns (when supply and prices fall) their cost structure did not change.  As it should have.  Because that’s what the business cycle does.  It resets prices and supply to match demand.  With recessions.  Painful but necessary.  Just how painful depends on how fast ‘sticky’ wages can adjust down to new market levels.  And herein lies the problem that plagued the Big Three.  Their wages weren’t sticky.  They were set in stone.  So when the market set the new prices for cars and trucks it was below the cost of the Big Three.  Unable to decrease their labor (wage and benefit) costs, profits turned into losses.  Pension funds went underfunded.  And cash stockpiles disappeared.  Leading the Big Three to the brink of bankruptcy.  And begging for a government bailout.

Well, the bailout came.  The government stepped in.  Gave the union pension fund majority control of the bailed out companies.  Screwing the bondholders (and contract law) in the process.  And created a two-tier labor structure.  They grandfathered older employees at the unsustainable wage and benefit packages.  And hired new employees at wage and benefit packages that the market would bear.  Comparable to their Asian and European transplant auto plants in the right-to-work states in the southern U.S. states.  And put the market back in control of the U.S. auto industry.  For awhile, at least.

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