UAW Shifts on Fuel Economy, But After Thirty Years, Big Three Remain Slow Learners

Not good business. Associated Press
Not good business. Associated Press

This blog rarely delves into the innards of the automobile. To build a better transportation system, we’ve got to do more than tinker with what’s under the hood. Still, there are times when attention must be paid.

In a historic break with the past, the United Auto Workers has declined to join the Big Three’s latest campaign against higher fuel economy standards. Instead, UAW President Bob King joined the heads of other leading unions and environmental organizations in a letter supporting “strong fuel efficiency and greenhouse gas standards,” and publicly criticized the automakers’ radio ads against the proposed 56-mile-per-gallon average. For that, he’s earned the ire of some of the Big Three’s purported defenders, including the Detroit News‘ Nolan Finley, who says the standard poses an “existential threat” to the industry and its workers. Greener vehicles, Finley argues, are a Trojan horse for environmentalists “openly hoping the industry chokes to death.”

Recall that Finley is making this argument less than three years after oil price spikes almost choked the Big Three to death absent any help from environmentalists, the companies having successfully blocked fuel economy standard improvements in passenger cars for two decades beforehand.

Michigan would do better to mind a Christian Science Monitor column by Pat M. Holt. “While Detroit has been lobbying Congress to postpone and stretch out better fuel economy standards,” Holt observed, “the Japanese and Germans have been meeting those standards.” Unfortunately, while foreign competitors seize market share, the American auto industry “is acting as though it ought still to be reaping the rewards for inventing mass production and the Model T.”

Holt’s column was published in 1980.

After thirty years, the UAW is finally learning this lesson. The real threat to jobs isn’t from environmentalists, but from Big Three executives’ suicidal refusal to meet 21st-century needs. Let’s hope the automakers wake up to reality, too. Meanwhile, the UAW’s King deserves credit for recognizing that sustaining manufacturing jobs means doing away with what Holt termed “Detroit’s dinosaur complex.” Perhaps we aren’t so far away, either, from realizing another of his points: that “UAW members could just as well build subway cars and buses as Cadillacs,” and that the survival of American prosperity, and the planet, may rest on speeding a shift away from automotive hegemony.