General Motors and Chrysler are done and Ford and the UAW are saying nice things about each other, but the question remains: will these deals ensure the survival of the Big Three?
Consensus is no.
There were plenty of huzzahs and back slaps when it was announced that GM would be shifting responsibility for retiree health care to the UAW. GM agreed to pay $29.9 billion to establish a voluntary employee beneficiary association, or VEBA. The VEBA is a gigantic trust fund and the UAW hopes it can generate enough profits off the investments made with VEBA funds to pay the health care costs of retirees.
Let’s be honest: any time you have a chance to shift a $3 billion annual expense to someone else, it is a good thing. However, GM also made promises one wonders if they can afford to keep, in particular guaranteeing the production of vehicles to certain plants. Not exactly the “transformational” contract some were looking for this time around.
Many folks were waiting for Chrysler and its private equity owners, Cerberus Capital, to put the hammer down on the UAW and get some real concessions and get a contract that would ensure the long-term survival of the automakers. And according to UAW documents, Cerberus tried. They demanded an immediate $1 per hour pay cut for all of Chrysler’s 48,000-plus hourly employees. However, they settled for paying less into the VEBA than the union wanted. A fair trade, I guess. But…not exactly the “transformational” contract some were looking for this time around.
The real problem comes in the talks with Ford. You see, Ford’s needs are immediate. They really cannot afford to wait until 2010 for relief on retiree health care benefits, which is when the VEBA takes effect. Additionally it’s unlikely they come up with the estimated $14 billion to $17 billion they would need to establish the VEBA trust, like GM and Chrysler did.
Dearborn, Michigan-based Ford took out what CEO Alan Mulally describes as “the world’s biggest home equity loan” in 2006 to fund its turnaround plan: $23.5 billion. The company even used the Blue Oval logo as collateral for the loan package.
By its own estimation, Ford will burn through $16 billion in cash in 2007 and 2008. GM and Chrysler have to put up their cash for the VEBA on Jan. 1, 2008. Ford is not in a position to do that based on those numbers.
Mulally and Bob King, UAW vice president and Ford negotiations czar, said nice things about one another yesterday leading many to think that they’ll get the negotiations done without a strike, unlike GM and Chrysler.
However, Ford needs major concessions from the union…concessions they were unwilling to give the other two companies. More importantly, it needs them now. If Ford takes a similar contract to those agreed to by GM and Chrysler, it may not recover.