President Obama told the United Auto Workers (UAW) in February not to listen to critics of the auto bailout who said union members “made out like bandits—that saving the auto industry was just about paying back the unions.” “Really?” Obama said. “I mean, even by the standards of this town [Washington], that’s a load of you-know-what.”
New research from Heritage labor economist James Sherk proves that it was, in fact, a load of truth.
The Treasury Department estimates that taxpayers will lose $23 billion on the auto bailout. Sherk and co-author Todd Zywicki find that none of these losses came from saving jobs, but instead went to prop up the compensation of some of the most highly paid workers in America. They write:
We estimate that the Administration redistributed $26.5 billion more to the UAW than it would have received had it been treated as it usually would in bankruptcy proceedings. Taxpayers lost between $20 billion and $23 billion on the auto programs. Thus, the entire loss to the taxpayers from the auto bailout comes from the funds diverted to the UAW.
The Obama campaign is touting the bailout in Michigan this week, crowing about saved-or-created jobs. What the bailout actually saved was the UAW’s heavily padded compensation packages; what it created was a massive taxpayer loss.
The UAW was a significant factor in the automakers’ decline: It had raised Detroit’s labor costs 50 percent to 80 percent above other automakers, such as Toyota and Nissan. In 2006, General Motors paid its unionized workers $70.51 an hour in wages and benefits. Chrysler paid $75.86 an hour. Added to mistakes by management, these labor costs were a major reason the automakers went bankrupt.
However, through the bailout, the Obama Administration insulated the UAW from most of the sacrifices unions usually make in a bankruptcy—at taxpayer expense.
GM and Chrysler owed billions to a trust fund they had created to provide UAW members with gold-plated retiree health benefits. In bankruptcy, these funds should have been paid proportional to other unsecured creditors. Instead, while the Administration paid other creditors only a fraction of what they were owed, it gave the UAW trust fund assets worth tens of billions—including partial ownership of both companies. The U.S. Treasury should have received these assets.
Bankruptcy law also enables reorganizing companies to improve their post-bankruptcy situation by renegotiating union contracts to competitive rates.
If the UAW had been treated normally under bankruptcy law, the automakers’ average labor costs would have fallen to the same levels as the foreign-based carmakers, approximately $47 an hour. While this is still 40 percent higher compensation than the average manufacturing worker, it would have reduced UAW members’ standard of living. And the Administration wouldn’t allow that. So while the UAW accepted huge pay cuts for new hires, the Administration kept the pay structure of existing UAW members at GM intact.
Even Stephen Rattner, President Obama’s “car czar,” has admitted that “We should have asked the UAW to do a bit more. We did not ask any UAW member to take a cut in their pay.”
As a result, even after the reorganization, GM still has higher labor costs ($56 an hour) than any of its foreign-based competitors.
The average American worker—whose taxes paid for the bailout—earns $30.15 an hour in wages and benefits. Few Americans have the ability, as UAW workers do, to retire in their mid-50s before they can collect Social Security. Fewer still receive retirement health benefits in addition to Medicare, as UAW workers do. Yet their tax dollars went to subsidize UAW pay and benefits.
Had the government treated the UAW in the manner required by bankruptcy law, taxpayers would have broken even. The program would have amounted to bankruptcy financing instead of an outright bailout. The Administration could have kept the automakers running without losing a dime.
Instead, more than $26 billion went out the door and into the UAW’s pockets. Let’s put that in perspective: The amount of the subsidy given directly to the UAW was bigger than the budget of the entire State Department. It was bigger than all U.S. foreign aid spending. It was 50 percent more than NASA’s budget.
None of that money kept factories running. Instead, it sustained the above-average compensation of members of an influential union, sparing them from most of the sacrifices typically made in bankruptcy—a bankruptcy they contributed to. President Obama engaged in special interest spending at its worst.
The Administration did not bail out GM and Chrysler. It bailed out the United Auto Workers.