Union questions auto execs' pay packages

The United Auto Workers says it knows it needs to help Detroit's automakers cut labor costs to reduce the gap in production expenses with Asian rivals. But as talks continue on new contracts, the union also is questioning why top executives at the automakers are paid what they are.

"As much as workers do, workers can't do enough, and as much as executives get, they cannot get enough," UAW President Ron Gettelfinger said during last month's two-day strike against General Motors gm.

During talks with GM, the UAW pointed out that while the automaker has complained that hourly wages and benefits are dragging it down, it has continued awarding bonuses to its top executives.

GM CEO Rick Wagoner earned $9.3 million in salary and bonus in 2006, nearly double what he earned in 2005.

While UAW members finish voting on a new contract with General Motors that includes a cost-of-living freeze, union negotiators have moved on to Chrysler, with Ford Motor f next.

Chrysler's new CEO, Bob Nardelli, became a symbol of corporate excess when he left Home Depot early this year with a $210 million severance package. Ford's new CEO, Alan Mulally, got $27.8 million in salary and bonus in his first few months on the job, including an $18.5 million signing bonus.

Some top executives have taken steps to curtail their pay during automakers' recent financial difficulties. Former Ford CEO Bill Ford took only $1 in wages during his tenure and donated much of his stock-based pay to charity. Wagoner and his top lieutenants took a base pay cut, although they continued to get bonuses.

Pros and cons

The automakers didn't want to comment on the issue.

Critics say automotive executive paydays are out of line with what's happening in the industry. "It seems like something out of the gilded age," says Chris Kutalik, an editor at Labor Notes newspaper. "It's such a glaring disparity."

Others say executive salaries are determined by what companies are willing to pay for the talent. "There's pros and cons to every bit of it. Do you want the job of being a CEO of a bankrupt supplier for nothing? The question becomes what's the right amount of pay for the job that's being rendered," says Laurie Harbour Felax, auto industry consultant at Stout Risius Ross.

Mulally defended his pay package to reporters last summer, saying, "All the skills required to run a business are market-driven."

Pay packages at U.S. automakers don't stand out compared with those at other U.S. companies. The median 2006 compensation for CEOs at 50 of the largest U.S. companies was $17.8 million, according to a USA TODAY analysis of data from Salary.com's CompAnalyst Executive database. Packages included salary, bonus, perks and stock and options awards.

But U.S. executive pay outpaces that of Asian companies, including Asian automakers.

Detroit automakers have focused on the gap between their hourly workers and those of the non-union foreign automakers in the USA. Union workers say the executive pay gap should be examined, as well.

"There is a huge difference between Asia and here when it comes to the top executive compensation," says Han Kim, a professor of business administration at the University of Michigan. "Rarely in Asia, especially Japan and Korea, do the CEOs get paid more than a million dollars."

Japanese companies are not required to break out salaries and bonuses for top executives. Instead, they lump them together. Last year, Toyota's top 37 executives earned a combined $21.6 million in salary and bonuses, according to filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission. U.K. firm Manifest Information Services, which analyzes proxy information, estimates Toyota's top executive, Hiroshi Okuda, earned $903,000 in 2006.

At Honda, the top 21 earned $11.1 million, combined, in salary and bonuses, SEC filings show.

"There is this huge gap between the average worker and the CEO, and the gap is greatest in the U.S.," Kim says. "That kind of thing might work where individual work counts the most, but in the manufacturing sector, it's all about teamwork."

It's difficult to get a precise comparison because Japanese companies are not required to include perks. "It's a very tough comparison to make," says David Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research. The perks given to Japanese executives can include homes, chauffeurs, country club memberships. In the USA, "our disclosure on things like this is pretty complete. The first inclination is to say there's this huge difference, but I don't think that's true."

"It's true that they have some of those extra perks," Felax says. "But let's not kid ourselves; so do the American guys."

Focus on hourly pay

Despite UAW grumbling about executive pay, the focus throughout the current labor negotiations has been on hourly worker pay. GM's proposed contract attempts to close the gap between its workers and those of its foreign rivals.

It's estimated that GM workers earn an average $73 an hour when benefits including health care and pensions are added in. That appears to be about $25 an hour more than Toyota's U.S. workers.

Toyota and GM workers earn about the same hourly wages. Benefits are what push the UAW members ahead. The GM contract slashes the hourly rate by making changes in retiree health care. The contract also will allow GM to bring in certain workers at lower wages.

For Gregory Stack, a Chrysler union worker in Detroit, the conversation about hourly pay seems unfair.

"We're all pretty much watching helplessly as the situation with the domestic auto industry worsens daily," says Stack, who is a third-generation autoworker. "Unions are getting a lot of negative press as being the sole cause of all the problems with the corporations."

While he's willing to take some concessions in the upcoming contract, he says he hopes something is done to fix the wage structure up top, as well.

"The disparity is massive," he says. "It does not all necessarily lie with the unions."