Stop the elitism - Detroit deserves better

I live in Detroit where the meltdown of the American auto industry is up close and personal.

My next-door neighbor Paul works for Ford, assembling bumpers. He works an eight-hour shift picking up one bumper after the other and bolting it on. He's one step away from being laid off, even though he has 16 years of seniority. A year ago, he thought he'd be able to make his way to the top of the union pipe-fitter training list, which would give him the opportunity to get a less-exhausting and better-paying job, but now it doesn't look like that will happen because the union doesn't have any opportunities for pipe-fitters.

It's not just autoworkers who are feeling the pain. The painter, who has worked for me many times over the past few years as I renovated a couple of houses, called me the other day, embarrassed. He said he hadn't worked at all in two months and wanted to know if I had anything that needed to be painted.There's plenty of embarrassment attached to this crisis. The most visible is that being handed out by Congress to auto-industry executives.

But as U.S. Rep Barney Frank (D-Mass.) points out, the most undeserved and hard-to-understand criticism is being leveled at the pay for ordinary blue-collar employees, hardworking union members whose way of life depends on the health of the auto industry.

Two years ago, Mazda invited me to drive what was then the brand new CX-9 in hopes that I would write a story about it. My passenger was a designer for Mazda Motor Corp. in Hiroshima, Japan.

It was a lousy day in January. Typical Detroit winter weather. The Mazda team had mapped out a route that went on back roads west of Detroit, past Ann Arbor, to the lake country near Michigan International Speedway where the NASCAR races are held. Being a NASCAR season ticketholder, I was familiar with the territory, but I would never have picked that route on such a slick, snowy day, especially piloting a car without four-wheel drive.

We got to the appointed lunch spot midway unscathed and decided to take the expressway back. Traffic was heavy and fast -- like it always is in Detroit. I wove my way through it. We had run out of official car talk, and the designer asked me what I usually drove. I told him -- a V-8 Dodge Dakota pickup. The designer said Mazda doesn't make eight-cylinder cars. Silence ensued.

We wove our way through the mess and when we finally broke through, I sped up, but it was pretty clear the CX-9 wasn't going to easily keep up with the traffic flow. The designer said, "Maybe we should think about V-8." I agreed.

If Detroit gets loans or bankruptcy protection, I hope that doesn't mean that we all have to drive under-powered, under-sized vehicles that won't adequately pull my fishing boat or my painter friend's work trailer. Little, tiny cars may be just fine for New York City and Washington DC where many of the auto company bail-out critics live. But they aren't good for much out here in the heartland.

I particularly hope it doesn't mean the end of strong unions that stand up for workers. Poor people including my parents, came to Detroit and other Midwestern cities from all over the rural South to build cars and work in related heavy industries. Thanks to the United Auto Workers and other unions, they earned a living wage and life-enhancing benefits, including good healthcare and a secure retirement. Because workers got and continued to get what their unions won for them, the rest of us who labor in other industries get better wages and better benefits because our employers have to step up just to keep up.

Congress handed out billions to financial firms and Wall Street without suggesting that lawyers and accountants and stock brokers and Congressmen ought to take a pay cut or change their way of life. Helping the auto industry over this hump is a no-brainer, not only because it will save jobs and save a whole generation of working families from devastating economic pain, but also because it will ensure we don't lose the technical and manufacturing facilities and skill critical to developing a better and more fuel-efficient transportation industry and stronger economic system long term.

Congress should knock off the elitism and just do it.
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