Outside the big auto show in Detroit this January, a dozen or so protesters marched in a loose circle, waving homemade placards like semaphores. The signs had slogans such as INVEST IN JOBS NOT WALL STREET and GREEN JOBS NOT PLANT CLOSINGS. As the next wave of hybrid and fully electric vehicles was being unveiled inside, these current and retired autoworkers were urging visitors to the downtown Cobo Center to join them on a “devastation tour” of Greater Detroit, where by some estimates unemployment was nearing 50 percent. Several of the protesters reminded me that auto plants had been retrofitted almost overnight in the 1940s to serve the war effort; couldn’t they now be repurposed as part of a new “green” economy? “Why don’t the auto companies open empty plants to build buses, light rail, and windmills?” asked Randy Sandusky, a member of the United Auto Workers union and a former employee at General Motors’ Detroit-Hamtramck assembly facility. But his frustration wasn’t directed only at the automakers. “With its so-called increased role in the car companies, why isn’t the UAW out here fighting for this?” Sandusky asked.
The rally had been organized not by the United Auto Workers but by a couple of small labor-advocacy groups. In the months since the auto industry’s near-collapse, the UAW has taken a far more companionable approach, even becoming a partner of sorts, to the Big Three—GM, Ford, and Chrysler. To help save the businesses that employ the largest share of its members, the UAW agreed last year to deep concessions, including the exchange of its retirees’ health funds for stock in the shaky companies. Those deals gave the union—through its Voluntary Employee Beneficiary Association, or VEBA—a 55 percent ownership share in Chrysler, an 18 percent stake in GM, and 11 percent in Ford. The union has tried to avoid any real or perceived conflict raised by this unusual relationship with management. At the end of March, it sold off its entire stake in Ford, generating a projected $1.8 billion for its retiree accounts from the company stock warrants, and it promises to shed its holdings in GM and Chrysler as soon as share prices allow.