Eric Mayne's Blog

Workers Take High Road; Critics Take Low

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A Fox TV probe that showed Chrysler workers quaffing liquid lunches (some spiced with herb) and then returning to the assembly line has done more than expose bad behavior and raise questions about modern plant culture.

It has laid bare a festering public contempt for blue-collar auto workers, particularly those who carry UAW cards, and revived the outdated notion that Detroit auto makers produce, well, crap.

Consider the USA Today story last week that revealed at least one commercial pilot is grounded every month for violating the bottle-to-throttle mandate that prohibits drinking within 8 hours of takeoff.

Where was the shock? Where was the outrage?

An online version of the story garnered five rational responses, one of which was downright sympathetic. Said "Aztec" (gotta love blogosphere-style accountability): "I don't know of a more professional group than pilots."

Fast-forward to this week's USA Today coverage of the Chrysler workers' escapades. As of this morning, the story had prompted 65 comments. Mostly vicious. Some merely scathing.

Said "Avitech" (oddly coincidental, no?): "This is the very reason why I would NEVER buy an American car. That would explain why their cars have been really lousy for so long."

"bail_out_this" added: "They don't make drugs strong enough that would make me buy their junk."

Such vitriol has been rare in recent months as perception appeared to be catching up, finally, with reality. Detroit auto makers have, for years, been closing the quality gap on their rivals from Japan and Europe.

So is doubt creeping back? Some argue it never really went away.

The ugly stereotype of the American auto worker as a beer-swilling, slack-jawed knuckle-dragger "has always been there and always will be," says Richard "Mack" McDonaugh, retired president of UAW Local 1183 in Newark, DE.

While advancements in ergonomics have improved a line worker's lot in life, he says it's still a "bust-ass job" because of the constant repetition, demand for greater speed and precision, and the increasing complexity associated with an ever-changing model mix.

Note: This guy is no apologist. His job representing Chrysler workers in Newark was effectively eliminated when the auto maker closed its SUV plant in that port city nearly two years ago. He now works for the Delaware Dept. of Labor.

Factor into this week's story the political undertones and the public mood gets even nastier, fed (sadly) by some automotive media colleagues whose all-consuming mission seems to be skewering the Obama Admin. One suggests the Chrysler workers' foolhardy antics are the latest proof that taxpayers' money was wasted on the loans keeping the auto maker afloat.

Meanwhile, this dude's Facebook page features his photo, wine glass in hand, wearing his press credentials.

For the record, in my 30+ years as a journalist, I've conducted more than one interview over a jug of beer. So the debate over who should or should not imbibe on their lunch hour is rife with complications.

Suffice to say, however, it should not cause embarrassment for your employer. This is where our small group of Chrysler workers fell down.

But connecting the dots between them and the Treasury Department loans that saved an estimated 1.3 million jobs during a time of crisis is ludicrous.

Sillier still is the suggestion that the misdeeds of a few could corrupt the conscientiousness of some 2,600 others at, in this case, Chrysler's Jefferson Avenue North Assembly Plant in Detroit, home of the critically acclaimed '11 Jeep Grand Cherokee.

The site's state-of-the-art manufacturing processes have built-in redundancies that "do not allow a single person's error to result in a quality problem flowing to the customer," the auto maker says in a statement.

Can airlines say the same about pilots?

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