Why U.S. automakers like GM and Ford are losing money

The answer? Big labor:

A big reason is the cost of labor. As analyzed by Harbour-Felax, labor costs the Detroit Three substantially more per vehicle than it does the Japanese.

Health care is the biggest chunk. GM (Charts), for instance spends $1,635 per vehicle on health care for active and retired workers in the U.S. Toyota (Charts) pays nothing for retired workers – it has very few – and only $215 for active ones.

Other labor costs add to the bill. Contract issues like work rules, line relief and holiday pay amount to $630 per vehicle – costs that the Japanese don’t have. And paying UAW members for not working when plants are shut costs another $350 per vehicle.

Here’s one example of how knotty Detroit’s labor problem can be:

If an assembly plant with 3,000 workers has no dealer orders, it has two options. One is to close the plant for a week and not build any cars. Then the company still has to give the idled workers 95 percent of their take-home pay plus all benefits for not working. So a one-week shutdown costs $7.7 million or $1,545 for each vehicle it didn’t make.

For all of the recent talk about increasing the minimum wage (a hike that benefits not working families, but labor contracts indexed to the minimum wage), is it any small wonder why U.S. industry is in such deep trouble?

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