Monday, December 01, 2008

Autoworkers Making $70 An Hour? Not Really

From CBS

If you've been following the auto industry's crisis, then you've probably read or heard a lot about overpaid American autoworkers--in particular, the fact that the average hourly employee of the Big Three makes $70 per hour.

That's an awful lot of money. Seventy dollars an hour in wages works out to almost $150,000 a year in gross income, if you assume a forty-hour work week. Is it any wonder the Big Three are in trouble? And with autoworkers making so much, why should taxpayers--many of which make far less--finance a plan to bail them out?

Well, here's one reason: The figure is wildly misleading.

Let's start with the fact that it's not $70 per hour in wages. According to Kristin Dziczek of the Center for Automative Research--who was my primary source for the figures you are about to read--average wages for workers at Chrysler, Ford, and General Motors were just $28 per hour as of 2007. That works out to a little less than $60,000 a year in gross income--hardly outrageous, particularly when you consider the physical demands of automobile assembly work and the skills most workers must acquire over the course of their careers.

More important, and contrary to what you may have heard, the wages aren't that much bigger than what Honda, Toyota, and other foreign manufacturers pay employees in their U.S. factories. While we can't be sure precisely how much those workers make, because the companies don't make the information public, the best estimates suggests the corresponding 2007 figure for these "transplants"--as the foreign-owned factories are known--was somewhere between $20 and $26 per hour, and most likely around $24 or $25. That would put average worker's annual salary at $52,000 a year.

So the "wage gap," per se, has been a lot smaller than you've heard. And this is no accident. If the transplants paid their employees far less than what the Big Three pay their unionized workers, the United Auto Workers would have a much better shot of organizing the transplants' factories. Those factories remain non-unionized and management very much wants to keep it that way.

But then what's the source of that $70 hourly figure? It didn't come out of thin air. Analysts came up with it by including the cost of all employer-provided benefits--namely, health insurance and pensions--and then dividing by the number of workers. The result, they found, was that benefits for Big Three cost about $42 per hour, per employee. Add that to the wages--again, $28 per hour--and you get the $70 figure. Voila.

Except ... notice something weird about this calculation? It's not as if each active worker is getting health benefits and pensions worth $42 per hour. That would come to nearly twice his or her wages. (Talk about gold-plated coverage!) Instead, each active worker is getting benefits equal only to a fraction of that--probably around $10 per hour, according to estimates from the International Motor Vehicle Program. The number only gets to $70 an hour if you include the cost of benefits for retirees--in other words, the cost of benefits for other people. One of the few people to grasp this was's Felix Salmon. As he noted Friday, the claim that workers are getting $70 an hour in compensation is just "not true."

Of course, the cost of benefits for those retirees--you may have heard people refer to them as "legacy costs"--do represent an extra cost burden that only the Big Three shoulder. And, yes, it makes it difficult for the Big Three to compete with foreign-owned automakers that don't have to pay the same costs. But don't forget why those costs are so high. While the transplants don't offer the same kind of benefits that the Big Three do, the main reason for their present cost advantage is that they just don't have many retirees.

The first foreign-owned plants didn't start up here until the 1980s; many of the existing ones came well after that. As of a year ago, Toyota's entire U.S. operation had less than 1,000 retirees. Compare that to a company like General Motors, which has been around for more than a century and which supports literally hundreds of thousands of former workers and spouses. As you might expect, many of these have the sorts of advanced medical problems you expect from people to develop in old age. And, it should go without saying, those conditions cost a ton of money to treat.

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