Contract talks between the UAW and the U.S. automakers officially kicked off this week with three grip and grin handshakes-across-the-table photo ops before the two sides retreat to the process of collective arguing..er..bargaining. The real fun, however, doesn’t really start until the contracts are about to expire on Sept. 14th.
The first contract talks I ever covered were in 1990. As the contract expiration neared and talks revved up, my CNN crew and I, along with several dozen other journalists camped out in the press room at the old General Motors headquarters on Second Avenue in Detroit where we expected to stay until the white smoke, or some other signal let us know the two sides wore each other down and agreed to a new pact.
This was all new to me, as I’d only been covering the auto beat since being transferred to Detroit from Atlanta the year before. I quickly learned an important thing about covering the talks–GM had a kickass catering department. Knowing we would be bored stiff cooling our heels for hours on end waiting for an agreement, or breakdown, the kind folks at GM kept us fed..and fed..and fed. Every few hours more food would arrive–chicken, steak, snacks and of course, the most popular item, Dove Bars. Oh yes…all the Dove Bars you could lick, slurp or swallow. The only thing never served up–was news.
So we hung in there all day, all night, filing whatever updates we could gin up to keep our editors and producers happy. In between, to keep from going stir crazy, we’d play cards and then a crazy game one of my producers made up called “Slug Charades.” For those not in the biz, a slug is a story title. At CNN it was important to make up a catchy slug for your story because sometimes that would be all it took to sell the piece to a show producer in Atlanta. So we passed the time acting out some of our more clever slugs while the rest of our bureau crew attempted to identify it. The other scribes in the room just assumed we’d OD’d on Dove Bars and would need to detox eventually on GM catering’s tasty rice pilaf.
Well into the second day we got an urgent call from out national assignment desk in Atlanta. “Get the hell outta there! A ship blew up in the Saginaw River near Bay City!” No problem. We got our parole but someone needed to stay back to keep an eye on the talks, so we left one of our bureau staffers and told him to let us know the moment anything happened either way–and off we went…but not before a local TV reporter who had evidently lost her mind from all the waiting around could not believe we were bolting and yelled out, “what the fuck! You have to stay! We all have to stay! You can’t leave us behind!” Alas we just smiled…well..smirked…and took off for the two hour drive up to Bay City where we knocked out a few live shots, fed a package and high-tailed it back to Detroit where, back at GM, the two sides were still going at it. At least that’s what we assumed since we hadn’t heard from our guy who was holding the fort.
Knowing we had someone on-site, our desk told us to go home for a few hours, catch a few winks, take a shower, change our clothes. Early the next morning our guy left at GM rings my phone. He was from Georgia. “Hey Eeeeeeddddddddd! Somethin’s weird. No one’s in the press room anymore! Ah dunno whut’s goin’ on!” Shit. I told him to call up to the GM press office, which he did, then called me back to inform me, “sheeeeeeet! All I did was close mah eyes for a bit and they freakin’ came to an agreement while ah wuz sleepin’! What should ah doooooooooo?” Hmm…find another job?
Well, yes…there was no one in the newsroom anymore because….THEY WERE ALL UPSTAIRS AT A NEWS CONFERENCE ANNOUNCING THE CONTRACT SETTLEMENT!
Luckily, CNN had four affiliates in Detroit at the time so once our national desk realized Sleeping Beauty had napped through the breaking story they were able to quickly arrange to grab the live signal from one of the stations.
The rest of us had to hustle downtown to the bureau, which was two blocks from GM, and crash together some sort of reporter package.
We were all just glad it would be, at the time, three years until the next round of talks. Oh…nothing could happen, right?
Our wedding anniversary is September 15th–the precise day the contract would expire. 1993 marked our 20th anniversary. Kinda special, right? I spent most of it at Ford World Headquarters, “The Glass House,” instead of celebrating our big anniversary at home with my wife and kids. CNN was sensitive to this and was kind enough to agree to fly in my predecessor in Detroit, Bob Vito, from L.A., where he was now stationed. After all, he had many years of covering contract talks. The plan was for Bob to spell me for a bit so we could at least go out to dinner, then I would return to Ford.
Heh. I waited and waited and waited and waited and Vito doesn’t show up until around midnight. “Where the hell were ya?” I ask. “Oh…I just really needed a Lafayette coney dog, it’d been a long time.”
Whatever. I finally got home for late night drink and toast. Better than nothing. Of course all is not fair. Along with all the other journalists I had been going stir crazy at Ford for almost 36 hours with nothing. Then my guy, fat and happy with his belly filled with coneys strolls in and an hour or so later they reach an agreement.
The last talks I covered for CNN were in 1999 and this time we were holed up at the basement press room at the Chrysler headquarters in suburban Auburn Hills, Mich. Again…nothing to report for hours and hours and hour but we were always well fed, which just made us more sleepy.
You know that thing about history repeating itself? Yeah..it’s not bull. Nine years after being wrenched from GM to cover the Saginaw River explosion we get an urgent call from the Atlanta desk. “There’s been a church shooting in Fort Worth, Texas! Multiple deaths. We’re throwing a ton of resources at it, so get the hell outta there and head to Texas!”
Uh…sure. By the time we could get our gear packed and down to the airport, which was at least an hour’s drive away, and then down to Fort Worth, what really would be left to cover? But we did as we were told, hustled to the scene and I was instructed to stand in front of a camera to do a live shot. I stood there for an hour when some producer said, “eh, don’t really need ya.” The next day we were assigned a follow up piece. Filed it and another producer said, “eh, don’t really need that.” So we took our toys and flew back to Detroit to continue covering the contact talks but…well, you know the ending…they settled while we were en route and CNN had a reporter from one of our affiliates do a live shot.
So…the final tally on that one? Got wrenched from covering contract talks to fly 1,500 miles to cover a shooting story that in a town where CNN already had a bureau and crew that did a fine job handling it when it broke, so our work was not needed and in the meantime missed the big finish to the story we should never had been told to vacate.
I covered one more set of talks in 2003 when I was the GM beat writer for The Detroit News. This time I was allowed to see it through and no one napped. But times had changed significantly since 1990. Despite my strongest hankerings there wasn’t a Dove Bar to be found.
The Chevy Volt went out of production last week so it’s a good time for a belated apology to the extended-range hybrid electric car. he Volt actually was built and sold by General Motors. The cars I was paid to promote contained similar technology, but were as real as testimony by Paul Manafort.
Here’s how it went down. For 11 years I was the head of electronic communication at the various permutations of DaimlerChrysler, Chrysler Group LLC, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. My duties covered video, our media website, social media and broadcast media. It was my actions under that last area of responsibility that leads to this mea culpa.
In 2008, when our company was caught in the gates of hell under ownership of corporate slumlords Cerberus Capital Management and on a straight path to bankruptcy, it came up with a trio of extended-range and electric vehicles. They were known as the ENVI vehicles. ENVIronment…get it?
One was a sporty Dodge built on a Lotus body, one was based on a Chrysler Town and Country minivan, another used an extended version of a Jeep Wrangler. Cool, huh?
One was a sporty Dodge built on a Lotus body, one was based on a Chrysler Town and Country minivan, another used an extended version of a Jeep Wrangler. Cool, huh?One was a sporty Dodge built on a Lotus body, one was based on a Chrysler Town and Country minivan, another used an extended version of a Jeep Wrangler. Cool, huh?One was a sporty Dodge built on a Lotus body, one was based on a Chrysler Town and Country minivan, another used an extended version of a Jeep Wrangler. Cool, huh?One was a sporty Dodge built on a Lotus body, one was based on a Chrysler Town and Country minivan, another used an extended version of a Jeep Wrangler. Cool, huh?One was a sporty Dodge built on a Lotus body, one was based on a Chrysler Town and Country minivan, another used an extended version of a Jeep Wrangler. Cool, huh?One was a sporty Dodge built on a Lotus body, one was based on a Chrysler Town and Country minivan, another used an extended version of a Jeep Wrangler. Cool, huh?
We staged a big unveiling of the vehicles in front of Chrysler World Headquarters in Auburn Hills, Mich., live on CNBC, followed by a news conference and ride/drive opportunity for the media on our test track.
It was a major deal and the press dutifully reported the company’s stated intentions to put at least one of these on the road by 2010.
My team and I even trekked to SoCal where we were hoping to stoke the “green” media out there with our environmentally friendly “production intent” vehicles–staging a dog and pony at the Rose Bowl parking lot, which included a series of drag races between the Dodge ENVI car and a Dodge Challenger. The electric Dodge won every time.
From there we schlepped the cars to Irvine for the weekly Cars and Coffee event, then up to a Huntington Beach dealership for further fawning. I produced two video features on the attendees at both going gaga over the green vehicles. Apologies on the quality of the videos. They were shot on tiny digital videotapes and have deteriorated over time.
At some point I get a call when I’m back in Michigan from a contact at NBC. I won’t name the person because that person is still working. The contact says, “hey, we’re gonna have the Chevy Volt on the Today Show day after tomorrow out on the plaza. If you can get that sporty Dodge ENVI car here I can probably get it on the show too. I hate for the Volt to have the spot to itself.”
I make the calls to the people who can make it happen….and it does! Next thing I know I’m off to NYC to manage the Dodge EV’s appearance. By that time we were calling it the Dodge Circuit.
Sure enough, Circuit is sitting next to the Volt on the plaza. Matt Lauer comes out to do the spot with CNBC’s auto beat reporter Phil LeBeau. The Circuit is bright yellow/orange. The Volt is a darker green. Phil explains both vehicles to Lauer and everything’s going well. I’m standing next to the PR guy from GM and we’re both happy. Then, as the spot is about to wrap up, Lauer makes some comment about how cool the Dodge Circuit is and that’s the one he’d want! The GM guy’s face drops. I’m smiling because I know neither Lauer, nor anyone else in the world will ever be able to have a Circuit or any of the ENVI vehicles because, well, it’s all bullshit. The chances of any of them actually being produced and sold to consumers was roughly the same as the Unabomber’s shot at parole, but they sure made a good case to Congress and the American people that the company was right on the leading edge of new technology, and therefore worthy of financial help from the taxpayers.
The gang back home watching was ecstatic and, I have to admit, I was too, initially. But once the company finally announced the ENVI program was being killed, and therefore exposed as the vaporware it really was, I felt a bit guilty that, for a moment on network TV, we fooled some folks that what we were doing was real while the innovative Volt was actually being built and sold to consumers. I always wondered if Lauer, now himself exposed for being a creep, would have preferred the Volt if it was painted in a brighter, more exciting color, since that seemed to be his deciding factor.
In all honesty, the whole episode was quickly forgotten. I only bring it up to clear my conscience and tip my hat to Karma. Long after ENVI and Lauer were both shitcanned, the innovative Volt was the last thing rolling.
Today, May 7, is the 20th anniversary of the announcement of the engagement that would lead to a wedding, and ultimately divorce in one of the worst corporate marriages in history.
At the time, I was the Detroit Bureau Chief and correspondent for CNN, so this was a big story for me to cover. I had no idea that nine years later I would be caught in the middle of the stormy split as a DaimlerChrysler employee. Indeed, disastrous corporate tieups seem to follow me.
The first was the 2001 merger of CNN parent company Time Warner with AOL. The result was laying off about a thousand CNN employees and shutting down bureaus. That’s how I lost my job there after 20 years of service.
I found my way to the print world, first as national auto reporter for the Associated Press, then General Motors beat writer for the Detroit News. Three years into that stint, I got a call that the head of PR for the Chrysler half of DaimlerChrysler was looking to start a media-oriented blog and wanted an auto writer to ghost write and manage it. Sold. Cool job. That job later was broadened to heading the company’s digital communications team, which included broadcast and social media.
Fast forward to October, 2006. Plans were being made for DaimlerChrysler’s annual global news conference. This was always held at the company’s Stuttgart, Germany headquarters, but they were going to “trust” us to pull it off at Chrysler Group HQ in Auburn Hills, Michigan. Two members of the Daimler PR staff flew over to meet with us to start the communications planning. We knew things were off to a bad start when we were told the date chosen was Feb. 14, 2007 and that all communications with the media would be by fax. One of the announcements planned included plant closings and layoffs. We warned our German counterparts such an announcement on Feb. 14th would lead to headlines blaring, “Valentine’s Day Massacre!” They were unmoved. We also explained no one used fax machines anymore, but they remained steadfast insisting that’s how they did it in Germany. We suggested the use of fax machines was effective in guaranteeing no one would show up. Tough scheiss.
Planning went along and on the appointed day I showed up at 4 a.m. to help direct the broadcast satellite and microwave trucks where to park and to help the crews set up. The first truck had barely arrived when I got a call from a reporter who could barely contain himself as he asked, “Hey! What’s going on. German publication Handelsblatt just reported they’re gonna announce they’re selling you guys off. Comment?” I was totally blindsided. We had heard not a word. I called my boss who at first stammered then promised some sort of statement shortly. It was not shortly. By then my phone was ringing off the hook asking about the Handlesblatt report. When I finally received the statement it was a non-committal corporate collection of words that didn’t completely spill the beans, but didn’t deny the reports. Things quickly got out of control. Now we had two disasters. An impending announcement of plant closings and layoff AND, with regard to the possible offloading of Chrysler, in the eventual words of DCX Chairman and CEO Dieter Zetsche, “all options are open.” Easily decipherable code for, “we’re ditching the Americans. Divorce is in the air.” Yes, it was a Valentine’s Day Massacre.
Ironically, only a few weeks prior, the company decided we Americans should learn to speak German and contracted with a local outfit to hold classes in our offices. After being told the marriage was headed for splittsville we all declared, “aufwiedersehen!” to the classes. When the poor teacher showed up to find an empty room, one of us gently informed him of the news and our last German lesson was how to say “that sucks.”
Truthfully, we were relieved knowing within some period of time we’d be out from under the thumbs of the German management, but would miss many of our German colleagues who became good friends. We had no idea our new owners, Cerberus, would be an even bigger disaster.