Survival is Job One

North American car manufacturing is now ruled by the Big Six, the
original Big Three of GM, Ford and Chrysler having been joined by
foreigners Toyota, Honda and Nissan.

This week, Ford announced drastic measures, as GM did earlier, to
ensure that it would not be a contributor toward making that pantheon
the Big Five. Faced with declining North American sales and market
share and increasing losses, Ford announced a brutal downsizing in work
force and capacity.

Between now and 2012, it plans to close 14
factories, eliminate up to 30,000 blue-collar jobs, 4,000 white-collar
jobs and 12 percent of its corporate officers. The targeted
white-collar employees are to be gone by the end of March.

White House insists “the job market is hot” and that it will provide a
safety net and help finding new jobs for the laid-off workers, but it’s
a safe bet they won’t be at the same level of pay and benefits. And
that’s where the problem lay: Free from foreign competition and prodded
by a powerful union, domestic automakers in the booming decades
following World War II built up generous levels of pay and health and
pension benefits that could not be sustained in the face of

GM earlier announced it would close 12 plants and
lay off 30,000, but even so there are still ominous rumbles about
Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Chrysler has been bought by German automaker
Daimler. By one count, the Big Three have cut 140,000 jobs, one-third
of their North American work force, since 2000.

But auto
manufacturing is hardly moribund. This year, foreign carmakers will be
operating 28 plants employing about 60,000 in North America, but these
are nonunion jobs and the sites are generally far from the traditional
auto-making centers.

That Ford should be undergoing this
convulsion is a matter of some irony, because founder Henry Ford
pioneered affordable cars and the means of mass-producing them.

The loss of these plants with their huge payrolls will be devastating
to their communities. But also being lost is an industrial way of life:
a promise of lifetime employment to multiple generations of workers,
comprehensive health care and an early _ 30 and out _ and well-funded

Globalization and economic realities may have made
this jettisoning of workers and plants necessary, even inevitable, but
it’s not pretty.

(Contact Dale McFeatters at McFeattersD(at)