When I covered GM and Chrysler auto plants more than a decade ago I found that lots of workers had lots of great ideas.

Since they were on the front lines they often had some key insights on how to improve efficiencies or tweak certain products to make them better. But alas, few managers listened. Even when the new management buzz words were “team building” and “employee empowerment”, for the most part it was same old same old. “Workers should be seen, not heard.”

Well, recent events at financially strapped Chrysler have thrust the autoworkers at the company into management’s shoes.

The company filed for bankruptcy yesterday and in a government-backed deal will partner with Italian car maker Fiat. As part of the deal, the United Auto Workers will get a 55 percent stake in the new combined firm and the union will also have a seat on the board.

From the Associated Press today:

After months on government life support, Chrysler is pinning its future on a top-to-bottom reorganization and plans to build cleaner cars through an alliance with Italian automaker Fiat. In return, the federal government agreed to give Chrysler up to $8 billion in additional aid and to back its warranties.

…When Chrysler emerges from bankruptcy, the United Auto Workers union will own 55 percent of the automaker and the U.S. government will own 8 percent. The Canadian and Ontario governments, which are also contributing financing, would share a 2 percent stake.

Lots of people have balked at the UAW’s ownership stake.

This from Wall Street Journal columnist Paul Ingrassia:

Having burdened the Detroit companies for decades with restrictive work rules, enormous health-care obligations and generous retiree benefits, the United Auto Workers union will now end up controlling two of them.

First off, I’m frankly sick of people referring to workers lately as a “burden.” Hello people, employees are the reason these companies can run at all. And, as for work rules and health-care benefits, maybe Ingrassia thinks we should just go back to a slave system where laborers are beaten with whips and allowed to die for lack of medical care.

Clearly managers at Chrysler agreed to UAW contract terms at some point and figured they had the money to cover what they promised. Turns out, they screwed up royally and now the company is at the brink.

Maybe we should give the poor chumps on the assembly line a go at running it.

Fiat management might indeed benefit by having worker representatives in the board room.

In the words of Bananarama, time to start “talking Italian.”

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