There's a long road ahead before any of the Big Three U.S. automakers can claim to be financially hearty again. But, with the new labor agreement hammered out the other day between Ford Motor Co. and the United Auto Workers, all three corporations have now bought themselves some of the flexibility they need to have any hope at a comeback.
If Ford, General Motors or the recently spun-aside Chrysler do disappear from the Rust Belt landscape any time soon, at least the autoworkers may now be able to claim that it wasn't their fault.
Now it is up to the companies to seize the opportunity provided by labor peace to upgrade and update their product lines so that they can gain more of their home market -- a place where they now sell, combined, a mere 50 percent of all new vehicles sold.
One of the things they can do is stop crying about how proposals to mandate higher fuel-efficiency will crush them and instead understand that it is the consumers, not just the green politicians, who want such vehicles.
The details vary somewhat among the three companies, with the workers at Ford reportedly giving up the most in pay and benefits in return for new investment in company plants, including a few that were scheduled to be shut down.
But all three companies have off-loaded the huge cost of retiree health care onto the UAW, after contributing billions to a union trust fund. The firms have also won the right to pay at least some percentage of new hires and/or workers who aren't directly involved in making cars on a much lower -- sometimes 50 percent lower -- wage scale.
It is too bad, perhaps, that the workers had to give up so much to help management clean up the mess left by previous managers, particularly their stubborn insistence on falling behind foreign automakers on such important features as fuel economy and safety.
But the managers also had a right to fume about how their labor costs were so much higher, per-hour and per-vehicle, than their international competition.
This issue is important to the whole world, given the economic and environmental impact the American-owned automakers still have. And it is particularly crucial to Western New York, where workplaces such as Ford's Buffalo Stamping Plant are among the few old-fashioned industrial employers left.
That plant wasn't on the list of facilities to be closed -- this time. But if management and labor can't keep building on this trend off hopeful cooperation, its time would surely come.