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Elmer Smith: Auto workers the new welfare queens?

WOMAN GOES into the supermarket and buys $500 worth of groceries with food stamps, then has them carry the groceries out to her brand-new Eldorado.

WOMAN GOES into the supermarket and buys $500 worth of groceries with food stamps, then has them carry the groceries out to her brand-new Eldorado.

It's the myth of the welfare Cadillac, one of those hardy perennials that goes into full bloom whenever we get tired of carrying poor people on our heavily burdened backs.

When you get right down to it, nobody you talk with has ever really seen her. But we've heard it so often that the story grows legs.

The new outrage is the auto assembly-plant worker who is earning six figures and drives a Ford to work so he can keep his Ferrari in the garage.

It's a peculiarity of American life that when times get tough, we can always find an overpaid worker or welfare queen at the root of our problems.

To hear the Senate Republicans tell it, the UAW's reluctance to accept pay cuts and benefit givebacks is one of the main reasons the industry is in the sad shape it's in.

How sad is it? Well, GM says it is about two lugnuts short of bankruptcy and will be flat- broke by New Year's Day. Chrysler has enough on hand to get to the spring and Ford is faring a bit better.

GM, which is leaking oil faster than its sinking siblings, lost $4.2 billion in the last quarter and is experiencing what the industry calls a cash burn, a measure of expenditures above revenues, of $6.9 billion this year, according to the Wall Street Journal's auto-industry tracker.

Ford posted a $2.98 billion third-quarter loss and is burning cash at the rate of $7.7 billion a year.

Chrysler, which is privately owned and does not have the same reporting reqirements, has burned about $3 billion so far this year, according to testimony before the U.S. Senate last week.

But that's much more cash burn than can be explained by the admittedly generous wage and benefit packages that the UAW has won for its workers.

In fact, a typical auto assembly-line worker earns $28 an hour, or about $58,000 a year, in salary. Shift differentials, cost-of-living adjustments and vacation pay add $10 an hour to company costs.

The big hit comes from the costs of health care and pensions. Industry analysts claim these costs average about $33 per hour worked by current workers.

Even at that rate, you can't account for the losses Detroit is booking. General Motors lost $10.5 billion in 2005, its best sales year in more than a decade.

Meanwhile, the UAW has made major concessions at all three of the Big 3 automakers. It has accepted a two-tiered wage system in which new hires are paid as low as $14 per hour in some job categories.

In addition, thousands of autoworkers have lost their jobs in plant closures, shift cuts and buyouts. The union can expect thousands more to lose jobs this year, even with an industry bailout.

GM had to write off $2 billion to clear the books after the deal with Fiat went sour. Ford is looking for a bargain-sale buyer for Volvo, which it snapped up when the tea leaves read better.

So, why are congressional Republicans so eager to lay most of the blame at the UAW's door? It's part of an anti-labor history that has as much to do with politics as with the economy.

The UAW and other large industrial unions have historically backed Democrats. The executives who have run these companies and the financial industry into the ground are in the pockets of the GOP.

That helps to explain why the same Congress that wrote a blank check for the banks, insurance companies and other mortgage holders is suddenly miserly when it comes to the auto industry.

The UAW has said that it is willing to accept another round of pay and benefit cuts. But it wants to phase in those changes and not have the bailout package be dependent on their concessions.

That seems reasonable to me. But, then, I've never actually met a wealthy autoworker. *

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