With GM's Wagoner Ousted, Should Union Head Have Met the Same Fate?

In forcing the resignation of General Motors CEO Rick Wagoner, President Obama said he was seeking a fresh start, a "new vision and new direction," for the beleaguered automaker.

But some critics are questioning why the president of the United Auto Workers union didn't meet the same fate, to signal a fresh start on the other side of the bargaining table.

Even though UAW President Ron Gettelfinger argues that his workers have made significant concessions in recent years, critics say Gettelfinger should have gone the way of Wagoner -- whose ouster could be seen as the final judgment for GM's pursuit of gas-guzzling SUVs at a time when foreign manufacturers were winning over their customers with fuel-efficient cars.

"Every bad thing you can think a union can do, the United Auto Workers did," said Kevin Hassett, the director of Economic Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

Hassett said Gettelfinger presided over negotiations that kept the auto giant burdened with costly benefits programs and protected higher-paid, long-term employees from the cutbacks set in place for new workers.

In December testimony before the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, Gettelfinger defended the concessions made to date by the UAW. He pointed to a move in the 2007 contract to slash wages by half, to about $14 per hour, for new workers, and to exclude such workers from the traditional health care and pension plans.

He said recent contracts held base wages for workers through 2011, and that they accepted reductions in cost-of-living increases. Plus he noted that the jobs bank, a program that provided up to 95 percent pay for laid-off workers, had been mostly eliminated.

The government loan terms for Chrysler and GM call for the companies to reduce labor costs and for the union to exchange 50 percent of payments to the retiree health care trust fund for equity in the companies.

Brian Fredline, president of UAW Local 602 in Lansing, Mich., told FOX News that Gettelfinger should "absolutely not" be forced out.

"Rick Wagoner took one for the team, but Ron Gettelfinger as far as job performance is concerned has done nothing wrong. In fact, he's been one of the stellar leaders of the UAW," he said.

"We've already been to the negotiating table. It's a lonely place to be," Fredline said.

But analysts say Gettelfinger's concessions for new workers don't amount to much at a time when auto manufacturers are closing plants, not hiring new people.

"They actually agreed to massive concessions, but not for any of the current workers," said James Sherk, a fellow at The Heritage Foundation's Center for Data Analysis. "The union wasn't willing to push for major concessions (until 2007)."

According to a study by Sherk, GM was recently paying workers a combined total of $73 an hour, factoring in benefits like health care and pension payments. (He disputed claims from Gettelfinger that that figure includes the pension and health care costs for already-retired workers.)

That's compared with the $45-$50 an hour foreign automakers in the U.S. are paying workers, including benefits, according to Sherk. He said the contracts for new workers will bring the UAW down to the pay scale of those foreign companies, but the company is still burdened by pension and health care obligations.

Fourth quarter reports from 2008 showed that pension plans at GM were under-funded by about $12.4 billion.

The problem, Sherk said, is that Gettelfinger and his predecessors presided over contracts that set companies like GM on an unsustainable course -- a rut that's difficult to get out of at this point without bankruptcy proceedings.

"UAW was the crown jewel of the labor movement ... now it's all sort of unraveling," he said.

Analysts are quick to note that the UAW, while significant, is just one factor in the Big Three meltdown. They say the big automakers still have too many dealerships and too many bad brands -- and that the entire industry was hit by the credit crunch and overall economic turmoil.

"As long as credit is not available, people are not going to be able to buy new cars. ...
Much of the automotive situation has been a direct result of the credit market," said Dennis Virag, president of the Automotive Consulting Group. "It's not just a Big Three problem. This is a problem with all manufacturers."

Several lawmakers and union workers complained after Wagoner's ouster that the administration is treating the auto industry much more harshly than it's been treating the financial sector.

"I feel that Rick Wagoner was treated shabbily. The president's position with respect to the financial sector has been far more flexible than his approach to the automotive industry despite its far greater cost to the taxpayer," Rep. Dale Kildee, D-Mich., said in a written statement Monday.

Randy Freeman, vice president of UAW Local 652 in Michigan, blamed Wall Street for much of the economic hardship facing the auto industry -- and added that the auto workers are just a fraction of the problem in Detroit, since labor costs make up about 10 percent of total production costs.

"It's 10 percent of the problem ... the rest of the 90 percent has to be looked at also," Freeman told FOX News. "We did a lot of history-making contracts back in '07."

And Service Empoyees International Union President Andy Stern said now that Wagoner is gone, Bank of America CEO Ken Lewis should be next.

"It defies logic, common-sense and responsible governance to punish the auto industry while letting financial institutions off the hook," Stern said. "Both Rick Wagoner and Ken Lewis sunk large public companies -- putting thousands out of work and toppling the American economy --  while accepting billions in taxpayer bailouts. Yet only Wagoner got a pink slip."

As to why Gettelfinger was spared when Wagoner was sacrificed -- as Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm put it -- Sherk said such a move wouldn't exactly strike the populist chord Obama was looking for.

"I think it was political theater and there wouldn't be the same theatrical benefit of forcing Gettelfinger out," he said.

FOXNews.com's Judson Berger contributed to this report.