$70/hour Auto Workers
A good deal of Boehlert's indignation is based on the fact that labor costs as calculated include pension and medical benefits to currently retired workers. He regards this as obviously wrong, since the money isn't being paid to the current workers. But it isn't that simple. The cost of pensions is incurred when the worker is employed but paid—assuming, as I gather is the case, that these are not prepaid plans with fixed benefits—when he retires. If labor costs only count what is currently paid to current workers the cost of pensions will be left out, substantially understating both the benefit to the auto worker and the cost to the company.
Ideally, the calculation should be done using costs when incurred. But pension and medical costs are not known when they are incurred, since at that point the company does not know when the worker will retire, how long he will live thereafter or what his medical costs will be. So the choice is either to use a current estimate of the future cost of benefits to current employees or a current figure for current cost of benefits to past employees. Neither gives a reliable figure for the future cost currently being incurred and it is not obvious which is better.
The one problem I can see with estimating the labor cost per hour using current expenditures for both current and past workers is that the number of employees and their terms of employment change over time. If, as seems likely—I haven't checked—the number of employees is substantially less than it was in the past, then dividing current pension payments by the current number of workers gives too high an estimate for the per worker cost being incurred for pensions to current workers. On the other hand, if pension terms now are more generous than they were for many of the currently retired workers, that would bias the numbers the other way. Similarly for medical costs--if we assume they will be higher in the future than they are now, then using current costs paid underestimates future costs currently incurred.
All of those are details and none of them were mentioned in Eric Boehlert's column. At the simplest level, and assuming the companies aren't trying to include both pension costs incurred and pension costs paid, which would be double counting, he is wrong. What he regards as a blatant deception is a better estimate for the real cost per hour of employing auto workers than it would be if corrected in the way he wants it to be.