Capital Insights with Jack Kern: Revenge of the Ball Bearings

"A lot of people in that plant feel betrayed by their own government. This is class warfare by Republicans against blue-collar workers," United Auto Workers Local 2209 President Orval Plumlee.

 With the big 3 automakers shutting down plant operations for at least the next 30 days, if not longer, UAW rank and file are planning to send a message to their former employers, and it won't be pretty. Their anger is palpable and may show up in a variety of ways. The may vote out their current leadership in exchange for tougher negotiations, or some of them might sign up for job retraining and end up making solar panels in Michigan, or in all likelihood, the may opt for the revenge of the ball bearing.

Years ago, after one of the auto industry strikes, a bunch of workers who had lost benefits at a GM plant decided it was time to get even. They started putting ball bearings, about the size of a large marble, inside the wheel wells, door frames and trunk liners of expensive cars. The end result was that when the car was still, it was normal in all respects, but during normal driving above 30 mph, the ball bearings would jump around creating a rattling noise that was pronounced. When the owner would take the car to the dealer, they couldn't figure out where the offending noise was coming from, and often returned the car, saying nothing was wrong with it. The guys on the line probably laughed about this a bunch, and to this day, I understand some of the vehicles are still on the road.

It does seem, given current economic conditions, that buying a car that just came off of an assembly line, built by someone angry about their impending job loss isn't a smart thing to do. I can just imagine taking the special deal offered for a lower priced car, great financing and an extended warranty and then while driving down the freeway, the windshield wipers blow off (pesky little bolts missing), the radio shorts out (do you smell french fries?) and tires start whistling as the brake shoes disintegrate. In what would be reminiscent of the bat mobile meets police chase spike strips, you end up by the side of the road waiting for the auto club to bring you lots of parts.

It is unlikely that most of the 20 or so plants will reopen after 30 days, given the inventory of unsold vehicles and while Congress argues over the $17.4 billion bailout, it is clear that any quick action to save the auto companies only delays the inevitability of bankruptcy and a very punitive reorganization. The UAW is going to end up a much different workforce they can even imagine.

As brilliant scientist Jeffrey Roper wrote recently:

"Personally, I am tired of hearing American auto execs bemoaning that high costs cripple their competitiveness. Germany produces great cars with staggering labor costs. True we must always be cost conscious but fact is America eschewed sincere commitment to educating future engineers and scientists decades ago and is now stunned that we lack the native capacity to compete abroad. It is not the fault of unions or middle Americans. They can only play the hand they are dealt. The responsibility lies with arrogant industry execs that assumed their position was a birthright and continued to produce sub-par products. Fair warning to any of us that believes success today ensures security tomorrow."

Clearly, Jeff gets it.

Jack Kern is the Managing Director of Kern Investment Research, and is responsible for the contents of this column. Jack said, "Hi, I'm Jack and I approved this column." Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear, until you hit them, and then they're really close. Drive carefully!