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Larry Kudlow: Who’s Losing the U.S. Car Business?

The United Auto Workers, refusing to make concessions, is to blame.

After Chairman Mao‘s revolution about 60 years ago, people in the United States played the blame game by asking, “Who lost China?” Well, after the breakdown of an arduous seven-hour Senate negotiating session Thursday night, many are asking, “Who lost the U.S. car business?”

Larry Kudlow
Larry Kudlow
Right after the United Auto Workers vetoed a compromise, bankruptcy-lite — the Detroit-little-three rescue plan put together by Tennessee Republican Bob Corker — UAW President Ron Gettelfinger played the blame game by blasting Corker and the Republican Party for “singling out” union workers to shoulder the burden of reviving the U.S. car business.

In truth, the UAW is to blame.

If Corker’s plan had prevailed, with UAW support, many believe that it would have had 90 votes in the Senate. GM could have gone forward with a clean-as-a-whistle balance sheet under a three-part restructuring plan that included a $60 billion bond-refinancing cram-down, a renegotiation of the $30 billion voluntary employee benefit association (VEBA) health-care trust and a pay-restructuring plan that would put Detroit compensation levels in line with those of foreign transplants Honda, Toyota, Nissan and BMW.

Average compensation for the Detroit little three is $72.31. Toyota’s average wage is $47.60; Honda’s is $42.05; Nissan’s is $41.97 — for an average of $44.20. So Corker’s idea was to bring that $72 a lot closer to that $44. (Corker notably knocked out Korean carmaker Kia, which has super-low wages.)

Corker’s plan also was constructed in true compromise fashion. Among the negotiators were reps from GM, Chrysler and Ford, and bondholders like fixed-income giant PIMCO. Critically, UAW representatives also were in the negotiating room, with an open line to Gettelfinger back home.

During the negotiations, Corker tried to be as compromising as possible on the tough question of wages, benefits and overall compensation. He asked the union to be competitive, but he never specified parity or complete equality with the foreign transplants. And Corker provided that the comp package would be certified next year by the secretary of labor — a Barack Obama selection. In addition, the Senate governing the package would be made up of 58 Democrats, rather than today’s 50.

All Corker asked for was a 2009 date for union pay restructuring. Corker never specified his date. He asked the UAW to name its date for a new pay package. But it had to be in 2009. In return, union members would get a lot of stock in this deal — up to $10.5 billion of new equity as GM’s heavy debt burden would be converted into common shares.

The UAW refused to make concessions. Instead, it insisted it would renegotiate only its current contract when it ends in 2011. That was the sticking point that killed the deal.

You have to ask this question: If the Detroit carmakers are in dire straits, going broke in two weeks, right now in late 2008, how can the UAW wait until 2011 to make its concessions? The financial problem is today, not two years from today. The threat of liquidation, with perhaps a few million autoworker, supplier and car-dealer jobs lost, is today’s threat, not a 2011 threat. So what’s the UAW waiting for?

That’s easy. Gettelfinger is waiting for President Obama and a Senate with 58 Democrats. He also was playing a game of bluff with President George W. Bush. He knew Bush had $15 billion of TARP money ready to go, meaning the TARP was Gettelfinger’s trump card. The tough-minded union leader never believed that the White House would let GM sink and possibly force millions of job losses in the middle of a recession.

So while Corker was negotiating in good faith (even with the support of Democratic big wig Chris Dodd), Gettelfinger doomed the deal, knowing full well that the Democratic Senate conference would never walk away from the UAW.

What happens now is anybody’s guess. The White House has suggested that TARP may be called into play, although the Treasury is in no rush to make a decision. The Treasury is going to kick the tires to see if a TARP bailout for Detroit really works. However, a TARP auto bailout may require new legislation. And ironically, a Treasury TARP loan may carry the same conditions proposed by Corker, including a “car czar” to supervise the whole operation.

Whatever the outcome, Corker has emerged as a Senate star. As a former businessman who ran his own construction company and built shopping centers, and a former chief operating officer for Tennessee, Corker knows finance and the economy. He even was a longtime union member — beginning as a 19-year-old bricklayer — and a trustee of the carpenters union fund in his home state.

While Corker may have lost this battle, he will be heard from again.

Larry Kudlow is the founder and CEO of Kudlow & Co. LLC, an economic research and consulting firm in New York City, and host of CNBC’s Kudlow & Company. Click here for more information, or click here to contact him.

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