24 November 2008

Auto Industry Wages

How much does blue collar labor at the Big Three cost? Not $70-$73 an hour. You only get to that figure if you include retiree benefits in calculating hourly compensation.

Straight wages are about $28 an hour. By my calculations, once you include a fairly generous health insurance package (about $7 an hour), employer payroll taxes (about $2.25), worker's compensation and unemployment insurance for current workers, you are in the vicinity of $40 an hour for total compensation for active workers. The other $30-$33 per hour worked goes to people who have ceased to be Big Three employees.

Huge liabilities to retirees is a problem for the Big Three. Moreover, since the pension is as close to any other big corporation to being fully funded, and the retirees also receive substantial PBGC protection for that part of their package, payments to laid off workers and retiree health insurance are the predominant unfunded liabilities of the Big Three. But, payments to retirees look more like payments to bondholders and shareholders who are also getting a return on distant past contributions to the enterprise, than they do like labor costs.

Indeed, in an ideal world, the Big Three would have borrowed money from ordinary bondholders to pre-fund retiree costs as it went, rather than leaving these as an unfunded liability. One plausible way to bailout the Big Three in a labor friendly way would be for the U.S. to assume this unfunded retiree costs in exchange for long term debt from the Big Three, in part as payback for NAFTA and other trade agreements and strong dollar exchange rate policies that have hurt auto workers.

But, that wouldn't solve the problem either. This retiree debt obligation isn't the only way that retiree costs are a drag on Big Three survival prospects. Since the Big Three have to make big continuing payments to anyone they lay off, they have a built in financial incentive to keep operating plants long after they have ceased to operate at a profit, because the company has to pay a good share of the labor costs of ooperating that plant, whether or not it is making cars. While this has a lot of economic justice to it, since the factors that cause layoffs are rarely in control of the worker, but are in the control of the company to a much greater extent, very few companies anywhere else in our economy are so generous.

A bailout that really left labor harmless would also have to assume future retiree costs cause by the nearly inevitable tens of thousands of additional automobile industry layoffs that are in the pipeline.

There is some fat in the amount paid to current employees under the existing collective bargaining agreements. Long time employees are paid a very substantial premium over new employees for the same work in their hourly pay. The premium for old employees over new employees in on the order of $10-15 an hour. The premium exists because it is much easier for an employer to pay less to new workers than it is to cut pay for existing workers, and because the companies can't simply fire existing employees who have what amounts to tenure protections (as do the vast majority of long time workers in union shops).

Atrios deserves the final word in this post:

Damn those unions for destroying Citigroup!!!

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