Workers Say Obama Treated Autos Worse Than Wall Street
Autoworkers say Obama's 'tough love' more tough than love, they get worse treatment than banks
DETROIT -- Many assembly line autoworkers reacted with skepticism and anger Monday to the Obama administration's tough tactics, which stoked long-simmering feelings that the people who put the country on wheels get treated differently than the wizards of Wall Street.
"It's the age-old Wall Street vs. Main Street smackdown again," said Brian Fredline, president of UAW Local 602 at a plant near Lansing. "You have all kinds of funding available to banks that are apparently too big to fail, but they're also too big to be responsible."
"But when it comes to auto manufacturing and middle-class jobs and people that don't matter on Wall Street, there are certainly different standards that we have to meet -- higher standards -- than the financials. That is a double standard that exists and it's unfair," Fredline said.
Many workers -- not generally known for their affection toward executives -- even sympathized with Rick Wagoner, who was forced to step down as chief executive of General Motors Corp. He was by turns called a "sacrificial lamb," "scapegoat" and "fall guy."
"We knew someone was going to have to take the proverbial `bullet,' and it would have made it a lot easier to accept that had the CEOs of the banks also been required to give up their jobs," said Jim Graham, president of a union local in Lordstown, Ohio, where GM produces the Cobalt and Pontiac G5 fuel-efficient cars.
While CEO oustings haven't been widespread among the banking industry, the government did in September reserve the right to remove senior management at American International Group Inc. as part of its agreement to give the insurer $85 billion in emergency aid. AIG Chief Executive Robert Willumstad stepped down as part of that company's bailout package, and the government hand-picked his successor.
Also, banks don't have the union and legacy costs that the automakers do, which make their products more costly versus foreign rivals.
President Barack Obama said he was "absolutely committed" to the survival of a domestic auto industry that can compete internationally. He raised the possibility of controlled bankruptcy for one or both of the troubled automakers.
Obama said the administration will offer GM "adequate working capital" during the next 60 days to produce an acceptable reorganization plan. The government gave Chrysler LLC 30 days to overcome hurdles to a merger with Fiat SpA, the Italian automaker.
Many workers say the government hasn't dictated such terms to insurance giant AIG or the banks in which it's taken an ownership stake. Obama's actions come amid public outrage over bonuses paid to business leaders and AIG executives.
"To see the very people that drove this economy into the ground be rewarded through bonuses while receiving tax dollars is just galling," said Dan Maloney, a machine repairman at auto supplier Delphi Corp.'s plant in Rochester, N.Y., and a union local president. "In light of that, the administration is taking it out, I believe, on the automotive sector."
Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm called Obama's moves "a bit of tough love," yet recognized a disconnect between the financial and auto industries.
"Yes, I do think that there has been a different look at those who manufacture than those who make money by flipping paper and I'm hopeful that the financial industry gets as tough a scrutiny as the auto industry has," she told reporters after an event Monday in Macomb Township, about 20 miles northeast of Detroit.
Despite Granholm's criticism and what many workers saw as the president's unduly harsh treatment, Obama's actions might not have a lasting effect on voters.
"It will be accepted, grudgingly perhaps, but accepted by anybody and everybody with a brain in their heads," said Bill Ballenger, editor of a Michigan political newsletter and a former Republican state lawmaker.
Still, Bill Rustem of Public Sector Consultants, a Lansing-based nonpartisan think tank, said Obama's actions carry some risk.
"I think this could have some impact four years from now if the state's economy doesn't begin to turn around," he said. Michigan's unemployment rate rose to 12 percent in February, marking the eighth straight monthly increase.
Workers watched Obama on large-screen TVs in the lobby bar of a hotel in Detroit's Renaissance Center, home to GM's headquarters. Several wearing GM badges declined to comment afterward, but one man whose fortunes are nearly as tied to GM as its employees expressed hope for the future of the company and industry.
"It's definitely a move in the right direction," said Tony Keros, who owns a restaurant and real estate development firm in the building. "Something has to happen."
In Ohio, Graham agreed that Washington just might get it right -- if only because the stakes are too high to fail.
"They understand that there are literally millions of people who depend on the auto industry -- whether directly or indirectly -- and a ripple effect of eliminating a General Motors, Chrysler or Ford would be devastating to an economy that's already been devastated over the past eight years," he said.
Associated Press writers Ben Leubsdorf in Clinton Township, Tim Martin in Delta Township, Ben Dobbin in Rochester, N.Y., and Thomas J. Sheeran in Cleveland contributed to this report.