AMERICA'S OTHER AUTO INDUSTRY

December 3, 2008

The men from Detroit have come to Washington this week to make another pitch for a taxpayer rescue. Meanwhile, in the other American auto industry you rarely read about, car makers are gaining market share and adjusting amid the sales slump, without seeking a cent from the government, says the Wall Street Journal.

  • These are the 12 "foreign," or so-called transplant, producers making cars across America's South and Midwest.
  • Toyota, BMW, Kia and others now make 54 percent of the cars Americans buy.
  • The internationals also employ some 113,000 Americans, compared with 239,000 at U.S.-owned carmakers, and several times that number indirectly.

The root of this other industry's success is no secret, says the Journal.  To put it concisely, the transplants operate under conditions imposed by the free market.  Detroit lives on Fantasy Island.

Consider labor costs:

  • Take-home wages at the U.S. car makers average $28.42 an hour, according to the Center for Automotive Research; that's on par with $26 at Toyota, $24 at Honda and $21 at Hyundai.
  • But include benefits, and the picture changes; hourly labor costs are $44.20 on average for the non-Detroit producers, in line with most manufacturing jobs, but are $73.21 for Detroit.

This $29 cost gap reflects the way Big Three management and unions have conspired to make themselves uncompetitive -- increasingly so as their market share has collapsed.  Over the decades the United Auto Workers won pension and health-care benefits far more generous than in almost any other American industry.  As a result, for every UAW member working at a U.S. car maker today, three retirees collect benefits; at GM, the ratio is 4.6 to one.

The international producers' relatively recent arrival has spared them these legacy burdens.  But they also made sure not to get saddled with them in the first place, explains the Journal.  One way was to locate in investment-friendly states.  The South proved especially attractive, offering tax breaks and a low-cost, nonunion labor pool.  Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee and South Carolina -- which accounted for a quarter of U.S. car production last year -- are "right-to-work" states where employees can't be forced to join a union.

The absence of the UAW also gives car producers the flexibility to deploy employees as needed.  Work rules vary across company and plant, but foreign rules are generally less restrictive.  At Detroit's plants, electricians or mechanics tend to perform certain narrow tasks and often sit idle.  That rarely happens outside Michigan.  In the nonunionized plants, temporary workers can also be hired, and let go, as market conditions dictate.

Source: Editorial, "America's Other Auto Industry; There is such a thing as a profitable car maker in this country," Wall Street Journal, December 1, 2008.

For text:

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB122809320261867867.html

 

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