The outpouring of angst about the bankruptcy and downsizing of General Motors is overshadowing what is perhaps an even more dramatic transformation at Chrysler. The smallest of what we used to call the Big Three has been delivered on a silver platter to a foreign company with outsized ambitions. It is now clear that the federal government is in the business of picking winners and losers, in certain industries at least. The question is why the Obama Administration has been so eager to make Fiat one of those favored few, given that it apparently aspires to challenge GM, the presumptive flagship U.S. automaker in which the feds are investing some $50 billion.
Only a few years ago, Fiat (profiled here) was accorded the same basket-case status that came to be applied to Chrysler and GM. In fact, in 2000 the Italian automaker was forced to turn to GM for help as its market share began tumbling both at home and in the rest of Europe. GM purchased a 20 percent stake in Fiat as part of a strategic cooperation deal between the two companies. In 2004, as Fiat’s condition grew worse, it invoked a provision of the cooperation agreement that would have compelled GM to buy the company. GM had no interest in taking on Fiat’s huge debt load, so it paid $2 billion to get the Italians to go away.
Fiat’s chief executive Sergio Marchionne (photo) decided that the company’s only path to survival was to combine with other car companies. He saw an opening earlier this year when the federal government agreed to provide emergency loans to Chrysler but pressured the company to restructure and find a partner. Fiat agreed to be that partner without investing any cash.
When Chrysler went back to the government for more aid, the Obama Administration took an even harder line, explicitly requiring the company to join with Fiat. The feds later pushed Chrysler into a bankruptcy filing designed to bring about the emergence of a reorganized company run by Fiat.
Marchionne took full advantage of his privileged position to intensify the pressure on Chrysler’s unions to make major contract concessions. He took a tough stance both with the United Auto Workers and the Canadian Auto Workers, threatening to scuttle the deal unless they capitulated. Canada’s National Post headlined its story FIAT PUTS GUN TO CHRYSLER UNION HEADS. Both unions gave in to the pressure and signed new contracts with major givebacks.
Fiat is no stranger to hard-line labor relations. Its relationship with unions has been tumultuous throughout the company’s history. The 2002 announcement of a 20 percent cut in the Fiat’s Italian workforce opened a new period of unrest in its domestic operations. In recent months, as Marchionne has pursued his grand plans for the creation of a new auto giant, Italian metalworkers have grown worried that they may lose out. Last month they held a national protest near the company’s headquarters in Turin. Frequent work stoppages and blockades have been taking place at various Fiat plants.
Chrysler’s workers may soon find themselves resorting to similar tactics. Even though 55 percent of the company will initially be controlled by the UAW’s Voluntary Employee Beneficiary Association, it is likely that Fiat’s executives will be the ones really calling the shots. The VEBA will have its hands full meeting its obligations to workers. In fact, UAW President Ron Gettelfinger has said the union would probably sell its Chrysler holdings as soon as it is financially feasible.
The party that has the most to gain from Chrysler’s restructuring is Fiat. Even though Marchionne was thwarted in his attempt to go from the Chrysler coup to the purchase of GM’s European operations, he still has grand dreams and is seeking other industry partners. In the meantime, the Chrysler deal will enable Fiat to expand sales of its small cars in the North American market, creating more competition for the new GM. How nice of the Obama Administration to use U.S. taxpayer dollars to make this happen.