By Peter M. DeLorenzo
Detroit. I had to scratch my head for a moment when I heard the news that UAW President Dennis Williams was planning a “Buy American” advertising campaign, wondering if we had somehow slipped between minutes and time traveled back to a simpler time when irrational, tunnel-based thinking reigned supreme and the UAW held sway over a declining American automobile industry. As in, are you kidding me?
Emboldened and apparently misguided by the current administration’s smoke-and-mirrors rhetoric about bringing manufacturing back to the U.S. – which remains conveniently removed from factual reality (big surprise) - Williams has decided that at this very moment in time, in February 2017, the time is ripe to undertake a “Buy American” ad campaign. That’s right, folks, Williams is going to press the “reset” button on the Way Back Machine so we can all pretend that absolutely nothing of any consequence has transpired in the auto industry over the last 30 years.
In comments to reporters last week, Williams has somehow convinced himself that touting union-made cars manufactured in America is just what this country needs: “I haven’t seen it this way for many years. People now know the impact of an economy that is reckless in trade and policies and how it impacts their lives.”
Uh, excuse me? Not only is this hoary notion of “Buy American” completely irrelevant in the global auto manufacturing landscape that exists today, it conjures up every bad stereotype once associated with American car companies and the UAW.
Remember, we are talking about our domestic-based automobile industry – once quaintly known as the “Big Three” - that saw two of its members go belly up and descend into bankruptcy just eight years ago. Yes, “The Great Recession” accelerated their collective journey into The Abyss, but make no mistake, the serial incompetence displayed by the American car companies for decades – and the crushing legacy costs that they had to bear from the UAW – were responsible for crashing the car with a brutal thud.
Certain individuals have brought up renegotiating NAFTA in this discussion (including Williams), and even brought up the “outrageous” fact that American car companies aren’t allowed to compete in the Japanese market. As for NAFTA, be careful what you wish for all of you knee-jerk reactionists out there, because unless there’s a rational new agreement – the odds for which are looking grim right now – the result will be chaos, a massive loss of jobs and a giant bowl of Not Good.
And the Japan thing is laughable too. American car companies will never gain a foothold in the Japanese market because except for a few oddities, the Japanese consumer just isn’t interested in American vehicles. Every time an American manufacturer has made a half-baked attempt at making a go in the Japanese market, they have failed miserably with Japanese consumers. Forget the Japanese government’s tariffs and all of the other “barriers” to American car companies competing over there, it always comes down to the product in this business, and after myriad feeble and failed attempts, American car companies need to just walk away, because it’s not gonna happen.
Yet, here is Williams, who has deluded himself into thinking that there are hordes of people out in the market feverishly clamoring for American made cars, oh, excuse me, let me clarify that: union-made American cars.
One thing that Williams and his ilk should have learned after the previous tumultuous decade is that very few consumers out in the real world buy a vehicle based on the presumed country of origin. Instead, they tally factors such as design, engineering, quality, safety, drivability, resale performance, brand reputation and other factors to make an intelligent choice based on their needs.
(And another thing about this “Buy American” canard? According to the Cars.com American-made index, the top five vehicles are the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, Toyota Sienna Honda Odyssey and Honda Pilot.)
According to the reporters who were there, Williams added: "No company can survive without the market of the United States of America. We have a lot of purchasing power. It’s time for us to actually use that purchasing power.”
Umm, huh? As in, WTF is he talking about? To say that this idea is wrong-headed, backward, ridiculous and flat-out delusional is the understatement of this year to date. Williams is simply operating from a horribly obsolete playbook, wistfully hoping that a simpler, less complicated time can somehow be renewed to relevance. He is out of touch with reality and out of step with the times, which, come to think of it, is really no surprise when it comes to UAW leadership, because it’s the same as it ever was.
This is no time for a nostalgia play in the automobile business. There are auto company competitors around the world who are aided and abetted by their own governments that will continue to ruthlessly compete in this market. Closing off our markets or creating disruptive measures to make vehicles from non-American car companies uncompetitive in this market is the very last thing that the two remaining American car companies need at this juncture.
My message to the American car companies is simple:
Do your jobs to the best of your abilities, which means designing, engineering and building the absolute best, most competitive products you can possibly muster. Don’t assume a government handout is coming your way, and instead focus on the fact that it’s all about the product, it always has been about the product, and it always will be about the product in this business.
The companies who understand this will succeed and thrive. And those who don’t will suffer the consequences brought on by serial mediocrity and lowest-common-denominator thinking.
As for Mr. Williams, he either needs to keep his delusional thought balloons to himself, or else climb back in the rabbit hole where no one can hear his plaintive cries for the way it used to be.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.