In a prior post today, I offhandedly criticized Mitt Romney for being too quick to assign blame to the UAW for Detroit’s problems. Ezra Klein channels Jonathan Cohn to get past the myth that UAW workers have the sinecure of a lifetime.
The $70 an hour came from dividing total compensation costs by the current workforce. But of course, lots of those compensation costs are attached — or were attached, before last year’s UAW concessions — to retirees. The truth is that current workers make about $24 an hour, plus another $10 in compensation. That’s about $60,000 a year, with good benefits. It’s a solid, middle class life. A helluva lot less than Joe the Plumber pulled in. But the $70 number isn’t tossed around because it’s accurate. It’s deployed because it’s useful. It recasts the story of the American auto industry as a morality tale in which greedy unions sit as the villain.
Now, this is hardly to suggest that the UAW doesn’t complicate life for Detroit. Indeed, one of the reasons that foreign car makers based in the United States like Toyota have stayed ahead of the curve is the basing plants in Southern “Right to Work” states which make unionizing all but impossible. Whether or not you think that’s a good thing is certainly up for debate, but the UAW shouldn’t be set up as a straw man when the problem was a staid business strategy.