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Singing The 'Blue-Collar Blues' On $10M A Year

It is time to begrudgingly accept that we live (and work) in a world of haves and have-nots, and there’s a growing difference between the two groups.

by Mike Schmidt, Associate Editor, Manufacturing Business Technology

One cannot help but wonder why General Motors CEO Dan Akerson didn’t think twice -- or perhaps even once -- before he opened his mouth and started speaking.

In a Dec. 10 speech to the Economic Club of Washington D.C., the head of the U.S. auto giant suggested that his company’s recovery from bankruptcy is being hindered by salary limits the government has imposed on executives at firms that accepted federal bailouts.

Here is Akerson, GM’s third CEO in almost as many years, and a man who receives a government-approved $9 million in annual compensation, in his own misguided words:

“We have to be competitive,” said Akerson, who was quoted in this Associated Press story. “We have to be able to attract and retain great people. We’ve been able to retain them, but we’re starting to lose them and I think that’s an issue for our owners to recognize that in their best interest, there should be some relaxing.”

When taken at face value, the statement is neither inflammatory nor unintelligent. But then there’s the timing of and context surrounding Akerson’s remarks, which came just three days prior to an announcement by GM that the company planned to offer stock buyouts to several thousands of skilled workers at 14 plants around the United States. According to an AP article about the proposed buyouts, the automaker estimates it has 2,000 more skilled workers than it needs right now.

The article states that GM will pay eligible employees $60,000 to retire with full benefits. Younger workers will have the option to take the $60,000 in exchange for giving up retiree health care and other benefits. They were notified by Dec. 23, and will have to leave the company by March 1.

Take a moment to let this sink in.

To review: On Dec. 10, GM’s CEO wonders aloud about the need for government-imposed salary limits for his company’s executives. On Dec. 13, it is reported that GM will buy out several thousand skilled workers.

I’ll readily admit that it is easy to recognize the importance of investing in and retaining top-end talent in any organization, especially in an increasingly competitive and globalized business marketplace. But GM, a company that accepted $49.5 billion in bailout money from the federal government in 2008 and 2009, is the wrong company to ask the federal government to relax its rules.

The company’s checkered past aside, GM heads into 2011 well on its way back from bankruptcy. But how can Akerson, a man who makes nearly $10 million a year, expect sympathy from anyone, especially those skilled workers who have buyouts coming their way?

The scenario is a prime example of the massive disconnect that exists between the white-collar and blue-collar sectors of a business organization. And maybe that’s not even the best or most accurate way to describe them. How about haves and have-nots? Instead of making a point about maintaining the talent level in his organization, Akerson inadvertently shed light on the growing disparity between those GM employees that have, and those GM employees that do not have.

When a new employee is hired by a business enterprise, it is said that he or she is joining “the team.” The business asks for loyalty and hard work from its employees, and pledges loyalty and compensation in return. But GM’s recent words and actions not only lack loyalty, they indicate the automaker does not recognize all of its employees as members of that same “team.”

It is time to begrudgingly accept that we live (and work) in a world of haves and have-nots, and there’s a growing difference between the two groups. Where do you stand?