Consider labor costs. Take-home wages at the U.S. car makers average $28.42 an hour, according to the Center for Automotive Research. That's on par with $26 at Toyota, $24 at Honda and $21 at Hyundai. But include benefits, and the picture changes. Hourly labor costs are $44.20 on average for the non-Detroit producers, in line with most manufacturing jobs, but are $73.21 for Detroit.
This $29 cost gap reflects the way Big Three management and unions have conspired to make themselves uncompetitive
-- increasingly so as their market share has collapsed (see the nearby chart). Over the decades the United Auto Workers won pension and health-care benefits far more generous than in almost any other American industry. As a result, for every UAW member working at a U.S. car maker today, three retirees collect benefits; at GM, the ratio is 4.6 to one.
The international producers' relatively recent arrival has spared them these legacy burdens. But they also made sure not to get saddled with them in the first place. One way was to locate in investment-friendly states. The South proved especially attractive, offering tax breaks and a low-cost, nonunion labor pool. Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee and South Carolina -- which accounted for a quarter of U.S. car production last year -- are "right-to-work" states where employees can't be forced to join a union.
The absence of the UAW also gives car producers the flexibility to deploy employees as needed. Work rules vary across company and plant, but foreign rules are generally less restrictive. At Detroit's plants, electricians or mechanics tend to perform certain narrow tasks and often sit idle. That rarely happens outside Michigan. In the nonunionized plants, temporary workers can also be hired, and let go, as market conditions dictate.
All the same, Mitsubishi Eclipses and Toyota Corollas are made by UAW workers at plants in Illinois and California. In each case, unions have made concessions to ensure the jobs stay put. Honda makes the Civic and Accord in two plants in Ohio, which isn't a right-to-work state. But attempts to unionize foreign-owned factories have generally been unsuccessful, most recently at Nissan; their workers know too well what that has meant for their UAW peers. Since 1992, the Big Three's labor force declined 4.5% on average every year; the international grew 4.3%. According to the Center for Automotive Research, for every job created by the transplant producers, Detroit shed 6.1 jobs in the U.S., 2.8 of them in Michigan.
Another transplant advantage: Their factories are newer and production process simpler. As a result, they can switch their assembly lines to different models in minutes. In response to the economic downturn, Hyundai decided to make more fuel-efficient Sonata sedans and fewer of the larger Santa Fe model at its Montgomery, Alabama plant, sparing steeper production cuts. Such a change would take weeks at UAW plants.