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Dear Big Three: Here’s what to do if you really want us to relate

Submitted by on Wednesday, 3 December 2008 No Comment

Dear Misters Waggonner, Nardelli and Mulally,

Is it all right if I call you Rick, Robert and Alan? Because I feel so much closer to now that you’re driving from Detroit to D.C. to beg Congress for money on behalf of Ford, General Motors and Chrysler, respectively.

Mapquest says it’s about a nine-hour trip, but Mapquest usually is wrong on the low side, so count on longer.

If there are kids in your party, count on much, much longer. You won’t even make it to Ohio before someone’s whining “I gotta go potty.” You’ll be just south of Cleveland when someone else wants snacks, which will necessitate another potty break near Akron.

By Canton, someone will complain, “I’m booooored,” but whatever you do, do not start singing “Wheels on the Bus” or you’ll pull out your hair by Pittsburgh.

Take time to gaze out the windows on this stretch. Youngstown. Weirton. Pittsburgh. Towns and cities all brought to their knees in the 1980s as a bloated steel industry floundered and, ultimately, failed.

This despite $300 million in government loans during the Carter Administration — and $300 million was decent money back then — and $1 billion from Clinton. Not to mention protectionist tariffs and import quotas Reagan and Bush I in between.

The sight of the Ghosts of Christmas to Come might cause a few shivers. But you can make the specter go away.

I’m glad you’re all taking hybrids to DC, though you’re a little late to the party. I’ve always owned American-made — two Chryslers and three Fords — but came within an ace of buying foreign when I purchased my current car.

The reason: I wanted a hybrid, and the Toyota Prius and Honda Civic were the only games in town. But not in my town and not in a size big enough for my growing family, so I wound up with a Chrysler.

Alan, you introduced the Ford Escape a year later, but SUVs are overkill for me. It took until this year for any of you to come up with a family-size model. A round of applause to you, Rick, for the hybrid Chevrolet Malibu.

All the while you’ve balked at government fuel-efficiency standards, which, by the way, have not increased one smidge for cars since 1990. And you’ve come up with neat tricks to circumvent them, such as the one that saw the PT Cruiser declared a truck. Doesn’t your face turn at least slightly red over that one, Robert? Kind of ironic that you now want $6 billion from a program to support fuel-efficient vehicles.

I appreciate your noble gesture of volunteering to work for $1 a year, Robert. You as well, Alan and Rick. But don’t you dare use it as an excuse to force your workers into poverty wages. And do not let stand for one second the mythology that the average union autoworker makes $73 an hour, because it’s just not true.

Yes, the union will have make concessions, just as members did during the last Chrysler crisis. But give them something in return: Give them a stake.

Walk through your plants, assembly line by assembly line, and talk to your people. Everyone, not just the kiss-ups and blow hards “lost in let’s remember,” to coin a Billy Joel phrase. Opps. Billy Joel. Allentown. Sorry to bring up that sore steel industry subject again.

While you’re touring your plants, pay particular attention to the worker who’s learned to keep quiet because his ideas are too radical or her thoughts are outside the norm. That’s where you’re going to find the innovation you need because, frankly, they know your operation better than you do.

Listen to your managers, too. All of them, not just the ones who have climbed because they’re good at either corporate politics or frantically covering their rumps. If you can cut through frustration fired by years of fighting the same-old same-old when their vision tells them things should be different, you’ll find some gems here.

And for Pete’s sake, don’t keep upping the sticker price every time you go to Washington. First $25 billion, now $34 billion? It gives everyone steel industry flashbacks and makes you seem like you don’t know what you’re doing.

You do know what you’re doing now, don’t you? Convincing me of that will go a lot further than 524-mile road trips and $1-a-year salaries.

I’m not opposed to a bailout. I’m not jumping up and down at the prospect, either. I don’t want you to fail, but I don’t want to throw money down a rat hole, digging a deeper ditch for my kids in the process.

Copyright 2008 Debra Legg. All rights reserved.

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