The moment the Big Three automakers’ CEOs flew into Washington with their hands out, the anti-union conservatives were back at it.

To them, the executives’ shortsighted business decisions, the poor economy and the financial market collapse didn’t send Ford, General Motors and Chrysler teetering on the brink of oblivion.

Oh, no. Re-stuff the straw man and dust off the old canards. It’s time again to point the finger at the $70-an-hour auto worker! Among great American mythical characters, maybe only Johnny Appleseed and Paul Bunyan are more familiar.

There he is – Mr. Joe Blue Collar, raking in $100,000 a year to push a couple buttons and move a couple widgets when they make it down the line. Yawn! Stretch! It’s break-time.

Conservative think tankers are loading up the hourly pay, health care costs and pension costs of all living union autoworkers past and present, and dividing the tally up among only the current workers.
The truth is out there. In reality, the average UAW autoworker’s salary is $29 an hour. The average hourly worker doing the same work at a foreign-run automaker plant in the United States is $26 an hour, although at Toyota its $30. Add in vacation, overtime,  holidays, nights and weekend pay and break time and the UAW worker makes 14 bucks more, while his non-union counterpart makes $9.
Benefits are nearly identical. UAW workers claim $12 an hour while the “transplant” makes $11. That’s $55-an-hour pay and benefits to $48 an hour. In America, that’s the little extra bonus you get for unionizing.

The alleged $70 number comes after the addition of “legacy costs,” the pension and healthcare benefits former autoworkers ($16 to $3 an hour) have coming to them after years of working around heavy machinery and hazardous chemicals, sucking in carcinogen-saturated air.

But why let the truth stand in the way of a good story? The southern Republican senators are turning George Washington and his fabled cherry tree line (“I can not tell a lie”) on its head by tarring and feathering our local autoworkers for the UAW’s long political support to Democrats.

Give back, give back, give back. That’s all UAW President Ron Gettlefinger has done since ascending to his position six years ago. In exchange for the $14 billion federal bridge loans, Gettlefinger was willing to give up the controversial “jobs bank,” bargained for in 1984 so laid off workers had somewhere to go after they were automated out of a job.

He was OK with more wage and benefits cutbacks as long as his members were. He even was willing to rework the retiree pension program to cut costs. But unless the UAW was willing to work for the same amount of money non-organized auto employees at the foreign-owned company, there was no deal.

Why didn’t millionaire Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., just ask Gettlefinger to dissolve the UAW on the spot and get it over with?

So far, the public isn’t buying this cock-and-bull that labor (which makes up only 10 percent of the costs of every car that rolls off the assembly line) is bankrupting Detroit.

Sixty-five percent of Americans put the blame squarely on the company executives’ backs, a Gallup poll found. About half of that number — 34 percent — blamed the unions. The survey of 1,000 Americans comes on the back of another Gallup poll showing that Americans’ support of labor unions basically hasn’t changed since 1972.

Keep the champagne chilled, though.

Voters are embracing labor unions as the lovable ol’ relic of yore.

Almost the same percentage of voters (32 percent) want labor unions to have less influence than more (35 percent), the survey found. Also, only 22 percent believe unions will become stronger tomorrow than they are today. Nearly twice as many believe they will become weaker.

Meanwhile, Republicans and like-minded free-market ideologues will drum the $70-an-hour myth for as long as columnists publish it as fact. That may spell trouble ­— politically — for labor unions going forward.

“Change” was the lead locomotive in the Democrats’ 2008 express run. Labor was a trailer car a few boxes back. Barack Obama wasn’t organized labor’s first pick (John Edwards) or even its second pick (Hillary Clinton), despite his Chicago ties.

If the economy doesn’t improve and domestic autos still aren’t selling, “change” could be the lead car in 2010, only this time Republicans will be the lead engineers and a Right to Work ballot initiative will take over the box car that unions once occupied.

(Kyle Melinn is the editor at the MIRS newsletter. His column runs weekly. Write