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back to index backAMERItalk October,  2005

Staggering blow: Delphi's bankruptcy ominous sign for fading auto industry

UAW showdown looms as company plans to shutter U.S. plants, cut workers, slash benefits

The American auto industry was rocked to its foundation Saturday as Delphi Corp., the world's second-largest parts manufacturer, filed for bankruptcy and laid plans to dramatically downsize its U.S. operations.

It was the seismic event that Detroit's Big Three automakers and their workers, suppliers and investors had anticipated for years, some with dread and others with hope.

At stake is the survival of Delphi, a global giant with 185,000 employees and annual sales of $28 billion, and the wages, benefits and jobs of its 33,000 unionized workers across the United States.

In its Chapter 11 filing in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in New York, Delphi said a "substantial segment" of its U.S. manufacturing base will be sold off or phased out over the next two years. The company will also move to slash union wages up to 60 percent, cut health care benefits and free itself of pension obligations to tens of thousands of employees inherited when Delphi was spun off from General Motors Corp. in 1999.

With one stroke, Delphi and its chairman, Robert S. "Steve" Miller, altered the course of U.S. automotive history and cast a huge shadow over contract talks in 2007 between the Big Three and the United Auto Workers.

"I think we all understand very well that life is not going to continue the way it has been," Miller told The Detroit News after the filing Saturday. "Things have to change."

Miller said he has assured GM and Delphi's other customers that a wide range of auto parts critical to their assembly plants will continue to be built and shipped on time. He added that Delphi's U.S. work force will be largely unaffected during the first three to six months of the bankruptcy process.

But the bigger issues loom down the road, as Delphi becomes the test case for unraveling decades of financial gains by the UAW to level the competitive playing field with lower-cost parts makers in Mexico, South America and Asia.

"This is the world's second-largest auto supplier, a former part of GM, going through a wrenching downsizing," said Harley Shaiken, a professor of labor at the University of California-Berkeley. "This isn't just dollars and cents. This is mortgages and communities and college educations."

Delphi's board of directors formally approved the Chapter 11 filing in a conference call Saturday morning with Miller and other executives at Delphi's headquarters in Troy. It was the biggest corporate bankruptcy in Michigan history, surpassing the reorganization of Kmart Corp. in 2002.

The filing provoked an angry reaction from UAW President Ron Gettelfinger, underscoring the legal battles to come as the union fights to protect the wages and benefits of its 24,000 Delphi hourly workers.

Calling the decision "an extremely bitter pill," Gettelfinger promised to fight hard in court for the rights of active union members and Delphi's estimated 12,000 U.S. hourly retirees.

"We will vigorously use our experience, expertise and resources to protect the interests of UAW Delphi workers and retirees throughout this process," Gettelfinger said in a statement.

He went on to blast Miller and the Delphi board for sweetening the company's severance packages for top executives just a day before the bankruptcy filing.

"Once again, we see the disgusting spectacle of the people at the top taking care of themselves at the same time they are demanding extraordinary sacrifices from their hourly workers," he said.

Unable to work it out

Talks between Delphi, the UAW and GM on a possible bailout plan collapsed during the past week. The union pushed to keep the negotiations going, to no avail.

Miller said that Delphi, which lost $741 million in the first six months of the year, could not afford to delay filing due to changes pending in federal bankruptcy laws on Oct. 17.

"We ran out of time to do it," he said. "But it does not change any of the underlying economics of our situation."

Among the most contentious issues outstanding is who is responsible for the estimated $6 billion in pensions and health care coverage for Delphi workers formerly employed by GM.

In a statement after the filing, GM said it "has provided limited guarantees with respect to certain benefits payable by Delphi to former GM U.S. hourly employees." Miller has contended that GM must absorb the bulk of retirement costs due its former workers.

"The debate here is how we can provide a softer landing (for workers) and who pays for it," he said.

GM Chairman Rick Wagoner has been silent in recent weeks on the prospect of a Delphi bankruptcy and what it means for GM, the No. 1 U.S. automaker and purchaser of $14 billion worth of Delphi parts annually.

But in its statement, the automaker said it currently pays $2 billion a year more for Delphi's U.S. parts than for components made overseas.

"A restructuring of Delphi through the Chapter 11 process provides GM with an opportunity to reduce or eliminate that purchase price premium," GM said.

Worldwide impact

Delphi, Michigan's fourth-largest corporation and No. 63 on the Fortune 500, makes hundreds of auto parts from satellite radios to air bag sensors. While it employs 15,000 workers in the state, Delphi's sprawling global footprint stretches from Brazil to China, with 65,000 workers in Mexico.

None of Delphi's non-U.S. subsidiaries was included in the Chapter 11 filing, and the company said its international operations would not be subject to the supervision of the U.S. bankruptcy court.

But the U.S. parent corporation and its 38 domestic subsidiaries will appear next week for an initial hearing before Judge Arthur Gonzales, who has been assigned the first phase of the case.

Miller, a veteran of bankruptcy filings at supplier Federal-Mogul Corp. and Bethlehem Steel, said the first six months of the Chapter 11 process will be dedicated to shaping Delphi's labor costs going forward.

Last week, Delphi dropped a bombshell proposal on the UAW that demanded 60 percent wage cuts to as little as $10 an hour for production workers, drastically reduced pension and health care plans, and elimination of the "jobs bank" guaranteeing paychecks for 4,000 laid-off workers.

Miller said Saturday that those cuts are in line with what Delphi will ask for in Chapter 11.

"What we laid out is what is required for us to have competitive costs at our factories going forward," he said. "This company can't compete unless we have substantial changes in our manufacturing footprint and our labor contract."

While Delphi has no plans to move its headquarters from Troy, the company's 2,000 white-collar workers in Metro Detroit "will be affected" by the bankruptcy, said company spokesman David Bodkin.

Delphi filed 40 first-day motions with the court, but it will be months before the future of dozens of U.S. plants and thousands of UAW jobs is decided. Under Chapter 11, companies and unions are given a period of time to settle contractual issues before the court steps in.

"If you can't get an agreement, you go back to the court and ask it to reject the contract," Miller said. "Then it's a free for all."

While Delphi's bankruptcy filing had been widely anticipated in the industry, it hardly prepared the company's unionized workers for the grim reality of Chapter 11.

"We think they're using the sledgehammer of bankruptcy to force pay cuts on us," said Gene Collins, a union worker at a Delphi plant in Dayton, Ohio, that makes shock absorbers and suspension parts.

An electrician at the same plant, Steve Jones, saw a larger picture. "I see the company steering itself non-union," he said.

Moving forward

In its filing, Delphi said it has obtained $4.5 billion in financing from a group of lenders led by investment-banking powers JP Morgan Chase Bank and Citigroup Global Markets Inc. The company said it also has $1.6 billion in cash on hand to fund operations going forward.

While Miller promised that Delphi's U.S. and overseas operations will "continue without interruption," the bankruptcy filing sent shock waves through its own supply chain and threatened to wipe out shareholders. Industry analysts predict the filing will trigger bankruptcies of smaller suppliers in Michigan and elsewhere that rely on Delphi for business.

Any disruption in its own supply base could impact Delphi's quality levels, as could labor unrest at plants vital to the product programs of GM, Ford Motor Co. and DaimlerChrysler AG.

"They have to walk very carefully," said Shaiken. "Critical to the success of the Big Three is worker morale and productivity. They could whittle their labor costs and compromise quality."

He added that Delphi's bankruptcy could snowball into a frenzy of price cuts throughout the global supply industry, driving costs down but effectively ending an era of prosperity for blue-collar workers.

"Who is to say this is the end of the line?" he said. "If you're competing with Chinese labor, then who is to say that $10 an hour is too much?"

Delphi's UAW workers said a sense of betrayal has overwhelmed union members who have dedicated years to their jobs.

"They just snatched the American dream from thousands of people," said Don Thomas, a veteran of 29 years at a Delphi plant in Rochester, N.Y. "Nobody wanted to believe it until it happened."

His bleak assessment was echoed by Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, who said she was "profoundly disturbed" by Delphi's decision to file for bankruptcy. The loss of hundreds of thousands of factory jobs in recent years has left the state with a 6.7 percent jobless rate -- one of the nation's highest.

Granholm joined UAW leaders in criticizing Delphi's executive severance program while rank-and-file workers "were being asked to accept brutal, draconian pay cuts."

"Globalization is ravaging Michigan's manufacturing job base," Granholm said in a statement. "Delphi's decision will undoubtedly have a ripple effect through Michigan's economy -- an economy already reeling from outsourcing."

Delphi's fortunes have been declining since last year, when losses in U.S. market share prompted GM to cut vehicle production and force price cuts on its suppliers.

But the moment Delphi filed for Chapter 11, the course of the industry changed radically. One analyst compared it to the former Chrysler Corp.'s brush with bankruptcy in the early 1980s -- only bigger.

"I see this as a bigger event than if Chrysler had filed," said Glenn Reynolds, an analyst with the New York research firm CreditSights. "This affects the 800-pound gorilla -- GM. It's probably the biggest event in the auto industry in 25 years."

Miller said there had been "constructive discussions" with GM in recent days, but the automaker had been sending clear signals that it wanted no part of a Delphi bailout.

Wagoner and the GM board of directors have been under intense pressure of their own to strike a deal with the UAW to reduce a $5.6 billion annual health care bill that is suffocating GM's earnings and balance sheet.

Saving Delphi, which it created with much fanfare in 1999, was apparently never a possibility for GM. "GM's goal is to pursue outcomes that are in the best interests of GM and its stockholders and that enable Delphi to continue as an important supplier to GM," the company said.

Achieving those outcomes, however, could be dependent on a bankruptcy judge and a battery of lawyers and Delphi creditors.

"It's going to cost GM something in the short term and the long term," said David Cole, director of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor. "They certainly have contractual obligations from the spinoff of Delphi. You can argue what that number is, but it sure isn't zero."

In its voluminous court filing, Delphi said it expects to emerge from Chapter 11 in early to mid-2007. For its U.S. workers, the process starts Monday when employees at various Delphi plants are slated to receive "information packets" about the bankruptcy.

The fact that thousands of packets will be ready for distribution 48 hours after the filing was no surprise to Bryan Stoner, an electrician at a Delphi plant in Kokomo, Ind.

"That tells me," Stoner said, "they've been planning this for a long time."

Source: Detroit News

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