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Monday, June 1, 1992

The Case of the Sighing Mechanics

Tibor R. Machan teaches business ethics at Auburn. University, Alabama. He edited Commerce and Morality (Rowman & Littlefield, 1988).

A few months ago, while Bush administration officials were twisting Japanese arms to try to convince them to stop selling well-made cars at low prices, my local service manager was attending a regional meeting of American Mazda mechanics. It is interesting to note how the mechanics view American auto workers.

At the Mazda meeting, an announcement was made that some of the company’s minivans henceforth would be assembled in Michigan. The 27 American mechanics reacted with a collective sigh. According to the service manager, they felt that even if the parts were assembled to exacting Mazda standards, there would be repair problems because American auto workers don’t perform up to Japanese standards.

This, unfortunately, corresponds with my own experience. I drive a 1985 Chrysler minivan, and I am always faced with problems—mostly with the suspension and the CV joints. Every four months or so I have to spend around $350 on something or other. My mechanic, an American, has told me I’d be much better off with a Japanese minivan. I can’t afford one just now, but I am looking forward to when I can buy a Toyota or a Mazda.

Why is this happening in the United States, whose “Made in USA” emblem once was a mark of excellence?

One reason might be that we now live in a society where workers are more concerned with job security, health insurance, and other “entitlements” than with doing well at their jobs or careers. Moreover, this attitude is encouraged by social and political theorists.

American academics and politicians focus not on merit but on equal welfare. The main thing in life, they tell us, is fairness. And fairness is mostly concerned with how well one’s salary and benefits stack up against other workers’. Fairness is the nice term to use when one feels envy.

So, the reason the American mechanics were distressed seems to be that they were beginning to sense the auto workers’—or at least their union leaders’—priorities. And these priorities no longer put a job well done at the top. Instead, U.S. auto workers are concerned mostly with getting even, obtaining a “fair” wage, ample pension, good health insurance, and whatever else their leaders—from academic political theorists to union officials—think they are “entitled.”

Entitlement politics has turned into entitlement ethics—including the professional ethics of America’s auto workers. That is what appears to have been perceived, at least implicitly, not only by car buyers but by their mechanics.

There are, no doubt, other problems with America’s competitive posture, It is very likely, however, that in industries where workers are organized by leaders convinced that envy is a sound basis for collective bargaining, America’s competitive edge will be difficult to recover.

  • Tibor R. Machan is an Emeritus Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Auburn University and formerly held the R. C. Hoiles Chair of Business Ethics and Free Enterprise at the Argyros School of Business & Economics at Chapman University.