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!”
GM’s announcement this week that it plans to close several assembly plants has me feeling extremely sad for all those affected and I wish them well, and it also has me thinking about some people I’ve met and experiences I’ve had visiting a number of auto factories during my 30 years of covering the industry.
I’ll start with a couple of the doomed GM plants. First, Detroit-Hamtramck. During my 12 years as CNN Detroit Bureau Chief and Correspondent, we visited that giant factory several times, but were only allowed to shoot assembly line footage once. That was in 1989. That stuff had to hold us for a long time because every time we mentioned that plant or GM production workers, that’s all the footage we had. But as you know, things change quickly in the auto industry and the models being built in ’89 weren’t the same as those moving down the line in subsequent years. In fact, we used that stuff so long we wondered if the line worker featured in most of our closeups was still alive. We assumed he wasn’t, and so that stock footage was named “Dead Guy.” When it was time to use the footage in a piece, we’d just mark on the script, or tell the video editor, “Dead Guy.” Yeah..news people can be cruel.
Another GM plant scheduled to close is in Lordstown, Ohio. Lordstown is a big ol’ plant that specializes in building small cars. Ahead of the 2003 contract talks, I took a ride over to Lordstown to prepare a set-up piece for The Detroit News. Got to the local UAW union hall where I was to interview some of the factory workers about their feelings going into the talks and what they hoped they’d gain from GM. After the formal interview I had a side conversation with one of the older workers due to retire. He mentioned some of the vehicles built over the years at Lordstown including the disastrous Chevy Vega. I told him I had owned a 19474 Vega. The gentleman’s smile quickly disappeared. He clenched his teeth and peered directly into my eyes and his voice took on the tone of someone shocked at hearing of a sudden death in your family as he said, “Ed. On behalf of all the men and women here at Lordstown Assembly, I offer you our deepest apologies.” Apology accepted! We then took a quick moment, started laughing and said in unison, “yeah, what a piece of shit.”
On an assignment to a newer plant down south operated by a foreign automaker I ran into the head of human resources who, at that moment, looked pretty dismayed. The occasion was the Job 1 ceremony for a new pickup truck. I won’t reveal the name of the automaker because my story might cause some heartburn, or at least embarrassment and that’s not my purpose. The plant was fairly new and was still ramping up its staff, including assembly line workers. So I asked the nice HR lady how it was going. She thought for a moment, shook her head and said, in her nice southern accent, “weelll, not so good. Damned idiots forget what they’re doing and keep leaning on the brand new trucks with their stupid belt buckles and scratch ‘em all up!” I asked why they weren’t placing protectors over their buckles as is the practice in every other plant. “Wellll,” she replied, “they say ya cain’t see the pretty buckles if you put ‘em on.” Cain’t argue with dat. And thus the industry’s belt tightening continues.