Auto workers, Corker still at odds

Auto workers, Corker still at odds

September 25th, 2010 by Andy Sher in Business Around the Region

NASHVILLE - A United Auto Workers Union official says U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., shouldn't be surprised that some union members booed him last week at an event where General Motors announced it will create 480 jobs at its Spring Hill, Tenn., plant.

"Can you blame them?" said UAW Local 1853 President Mike O'Rourke. "How would you feel if Bob Corker was responsible for you taking a 25 percent pay cut? You'd boo then, wouldn't you?"

Corker was Chattanooga's mayor before he was elected to the Senate.

He took a lead Senate role in criticizing the auto industry bailout in 2008 and pushed for union wage and benefit concessions at GM and Chrysler that later were adopted.

Corker attended the ceremony at GM's former Saturn plant, where the automaker has unveiled plans to build a four-cylinder engine. As he was introduced, there was some booing and a woman shouted, "Go home, Corker!"

The senator was lambasted this week by MSNBC host Rachel Maddow and other left-leaning critics for going to the event, but in an interview Friday, he was unapologetic.

"I can tell you this, had I not played the role - and this is a pretty audacious statement - if I had not played the role I played during that time, I can guarantee you the workers at GM and at Spring Hill would have no future at all because the company would be laden with debt," Corker said.

He said he knows he is "public enemy No. 1 for the UAW." But he said the original Bush administration plan in 2008 would have been irresponsible without requiring the company to deal with its debt and overly generous union concessions. GM was a "dead man walking" at the time, he said.

Corker's role wins praise in a newly published book, "Overhaul: An Insider's Account of the Obama Administration's Emergency Rescue of the Auto Industry," written by former Obama administration "car czar" Steven Rattner.

Rattner describes Corker as "one of the unsung heroes of the auto bailout." He writes that together with the Bush team, Corker "homed in early on the key issue: pumping money into either GM or Chrysler without a substantial restructuring of liabilities and expenses was foolhardy."

He said three of the "levers" Corker sought to use - slashing the companies' outstanding debt, restructuring health care obligations and making their pay competitive with other, nonunion auto companies - "were some of the same that we would manipulate later when the Obama task force took its turn."

Corker's proposal failed to gain sufficient Senate support in late 2008. He later voted to uphold a successful GOP filibuster against a Democratic plan, throwing the issue to the White House.

GM ultimately received $50 billion under the plan. The revamped company is now planning a limited initial public stock offering later this year.

O'Rourke downplayed the amount of booing at last week's event. He said that during the bailout battle, Corker "tried to pump up his stock at the Republican Party at the expense of the 5,000 auto workers that reside in Spring Hill, Tenn."

Corker countered that GM had "weak management" that allowed ruinous concessions over the years and that the UAW "was an accomplice in those mistakes." He said repeatedly he is not "anti-union."

O'Rourke said he believes "the only group that took a pay cut and took benefit reductions in this whole [economic] mess was auto workers. Wall Street didn't take any pay cuts. They went right back to the bonuses."