I saw these two headlines right next to each other this morning:
For years, Detroit automakers ignored the obvious and insisted on playing catch-up instead of innovating. Now, as anyone who pays even a little attention to the news knows, GM, Chrysler, and especially Ford, are paying the price. The Japanese manufacturer Toyota, taking a cue from Henry Ford’s Today and Tomorrow, has displaced GM as the largest auto seller in the world, and all three U.S. manufacturers are scrambling to address union issues to keep plants running.
I can sympathize with U.S. automakers, and even with their employees. However, the rationalization that companies could be more competitive without the costs extracted by the union and the unions protesting that said automakers are trying to cheat them out of what they deserve strikes a false note. The unwillingness to acknowledge their necessary relationship is flabbergasting. If the U.S. car makers go out of business, the union has bigger problems than whether they’re making less per hour. And if its employees can’t buy the product your producing…the need for balance is obvious, but few seem ready to have that discussion without taking potshots at one another.
The conversation about modern-day American car production seems stuck on the same issues that have plagued it since the Japanese landed with their safe, economical alternatives. Instead of telling the car-buying public about the amazing models that are in R&D or in production, the focus of U.S. companies remains on union negotiations and the cost of health care. On the other side, Toyota and Honda get to talk about their hybrid models and saving the earth. Two distinctly different conversations with somewhat obvious outcomes.
Perhaps Toyota, Honda, and other foreign car companies have the advantage because they aren’t dealing with unions and the historical baggage weighing down the Big Three. However, instead of blaming the unions, I think U.S automakers are suffering from something else that Ford discussed in Today and Tomorrow:
One sees them all about—men who do not know that yesterday is past, and who woke up this morning with their last years ideas […] there is a subtle danger in a man thinking that he is ‘fixed’ for life. It indicates that the next jolt of the wheel of progress is going to fling him off.
If the flinging hasn’t already commenced, I suspect it will shortly.