I’m retired now, but I have covered my fair share of contract talks between Detroit’s automakers and the UAW and worked for one of them between 1989 and when I retired from Fiat Chrysler Automobiles in 2016. That means I’ve seen the meat grinder from both sides of the gristle.
The bottom line is too many reporters are wasting their time calling their sources asking for some indications as to how the talks are going. Oh sure, some may have a pipeline to the bargaining table and others who have been through the process previously, may think they know what’s happening. I’ve found those clandestine quotes make for good stories under even better headlines and broadcast news teasers, but are often off the mark.
Now I’ll share what many longtime auto scribes already know–the truth is in the food. I realize times have changed dramatically since the days of reporters basically living at auto company headquarters waiting for the white smoke of a contract settlement. I even spent my 20th wedding anniversary at Ford’s Glass House fast asleep on a couch hoping for a timely agreement so I could get home in time to celebrate our big occasion.
Back in the day, the automakers fed us ‘round the clock. Catered meals, unending supplies of Dove Bars, midnight snacks. For the first few hours it seemed like the most fun you could have without beer.
Yes, we’d constantly be calling our sources hoping for at least one new lead. I was working at CNN most of the I covered the auto beat, so I was desperate for something new to say on my almost hourly live shots. The producers got pissed if all you had was “GM stuffed our faces with a delicate linguini.”
But the menu was more prescient than less experienced reporters realized. When the fare was suddenly upgraded to include steak, or lobster, or steak and lobster, it was like the big finale at a fireworks show. We’d get on the horn to our editors, breathlessly reporting, “Shit! It won’t be long now. Put me on the air!”
Anchor to Ed: “Ed, what’s the latest from the contract talks?”
Ed: “Well Bernie, all indications are they’re about to shake hands on a new pact.”
Anchor: “How do you know this?”
Ed: “They just fed us surf and turf. There can be no doubt it’s a done deal.”
Anchor: “Thanks for that scoop, Ed! Folks, you just heard it first on CNN. The two sides are just dessert away from inking a new four-year contract!”
Then there was the time a PR guy at one of the Detroit 3 decided to spoon feed me the scoop without actually saying it. This actually happened.
Ed to PR guy: “Hey Tom..what do you hear? Can I step out for a little bit?”
PR guy: “NO! The pizza is coming and it’s gonna be SO GOOD!”
Ed to PR guy: “Aw thanks, Tom, but I’m stuffed”
PR guy: “NO! you don’t understand. The pizza is coming at about 2 a.m. and it’s gonna be awesome. Don’t leave!”
He seemed kinda wound up so I stayed. Good thing. “Pizza” was code word for an agreement and sure enough, at around 2 a.m. word came down they’d reached a deal.
Sure, times have changed. I haven’t been stuck holed up staking out labor talks for several years so I’m sure the automakers aren’t serving up surf, turf or Dove Bars anymore which means today’s journalists are working hard, working their sources, pumping them for any nuggets of news. But it just might be worth it if one enterprising scribe went a little old school and asked the question, “hey, what’re they serving?”
If it’s pizza, fire up your device and prepare to file. It’s gonna be “so good!”