Two and a half years ago, when I became Labor Secretary, our economy was in a free fall. The financial system was on the verge of meltdown. Entire industries were being threatened. Credit had frozen. People’s retirement savings were in jeopardy. Middle class workers didn’t know whether they were going to get a paycheck or a pink slip in the mail.
Here in the Beltway, we heard a lot of different ideas about who was to blame and what it would take to put us on the road to recovery. Some conservatives argued that in a time of rapid globalization, America could either have economic growth, or we could have strong labor unions—but not both, they said.
They said to compete against countries where workers had no rights, we had to take away the rights of our own. They wanted to win a new race to the bottom. When the credit retrenchment hit the auto industry, some argued we should “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt”—never mind the cascade of harmful effects this would have on blue-collar auto communities across America.
Fortunately, President Obama understood that organized labor helped create the American middle class. He called for shared sacrifice in Detroit, and he bet big on the American worker. This President knew labor and management could sit across the table and retool for the 21st century in a way that’s good for the bottom line and for those on the assembly line. So the administration stepped in to provide aid that was contingent upon a smart, forward-looking restructuring.
Fast forward to the present: Chrysler has repaid its government loan six years ahead of schedule. A million auto jobs have been saved. The auto industry has created 115,000 new jobs since GM and Chrysler restructured. The industry is experiencing its strongest job growth in more than a decade. All three big automakers posted profits last quarter. And all three gained market share for the first time in 16 years.
American auto companies have succeeded by working with, not against, their unionized workforce. Industry succeeds when labor sits at the table with management, and ideas are shared.
The management at Ford Motor Company knows its workforce is an enormous asset, with a lot of accumulated wisdom about car-making. They know that including labor at the table creates a higher-quality product. It creates a more motivated workforce. And they sell more cars.
This year, the Ford Explorer was named 2011 North American Truck of the Year. UAW workers in Chicago were given a real voice in how the Explorer is built. When assembly line workers saw that a bracket installation process could cause paint damage, they took their concerns to the engineers. Their voices were heard by management, and changes were made. Ford put a new protective covering on the paint surface. As a result, Explorer drivers saved a lot of money in future paint repairs.
Every day, Ford management and UAW members work together on joint quality audit teams. They look at ways to reduce waste and ensure high performance. These audits saved the company $250 million last year in warranty costs. This is money that can be used by Ford to hire workers and reinvest in the company.
We’ve utilized the labor-management partnership model at the Department of Labor to make big strides on workplace safety. Last Friday, OSHA renewed our strategic partnership with Ford, UAW, Automotive Components Holding and Michigan’s state OSHA.
We work with our partners on safety training, leadership engagement and compliance monitoring. This voluntary labor-management partnership covers 25 Ford facilities, and the results speak for themselves. In the last decade, Ford and UAW reduced occupational injuries and illness by 74 percent at participating plants. And they reduced the number of days that workers must take off to recover from incidents by 88 percent. That’s what I call a win-win for workers and employers.
We are stronger when we work together. I’m proud of the auto industry for offering a roadmap for sustainable 21st century economic growth—one that doesn’t leave the American worker behind.