A Day in an Auto Plant: High-Stakes Musical Chairs

What is it like to work in an auto plant these days?

I wake up in the morning not feeling refreshed because it’s been a hot summer and the heat in the center of the plant has been unrelenting. I am working on my 39th year into my Big 3 auto career, and I’m longing to stumble through four more years until I retire at age 66.

After about an hour of me time around the house, I drive over to my 86-year-old mother’s place to check on her wellbeing, fix lunch, and visit with her. She lives in a modest ranch home in the once vibrant Detroit suburb of Livonia, Michigan, a state suffering from industrial decline and benign and not so benign neglect.

Off to work. As I drive down I-696, the Reuther Freeway, I listen to a radio news report. United Auto Workers President Bob King, attending a management conference in Traverse City, nixes the possibility of a base wage increase in the upcoming contract negotiations, due to “competitive” concerns.

The ceremonial start of UAW/Chrysler bargaining kicked off on July 26 with both “sides” wearing identical maroon blazers, to indicate they are on the same team. My co-workers are less than optimistic about winning back the concessions we all made to keep Chrysler in business.

I am lucky today as I walk in the plant; none of the equipment I maintain is broken. I have a little more time to open my toolbox, put on my safety equipment, and survey my production lines. They are all mine now. Management pulled my work partner from the area a week ago, effectively doubling my workload. My union representative said there is nothing we can do about it. Work safe.

My co-workers are decent folk. They try to do a good job, build quality products, and provide for their families. Like many in this society, auto workers are under a lot of stress. The company mantra is to do more work with fewer people and less money. This is like playing a high-stakes game of musical chairs daily. Many work every hour of overtime available to make ends meet and to put away money for a rainy day. Balancing home life and work life is tough on that schedule.

We seniority employees are the “lucky ones.” We still work under the top rate negotiated years ago. We haven’t had a raise in a couple of contracts, and we have lost our cost-of-living adjustments just as gas and food prices have soared. We are hanging on.

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New hires are in a different situation altogether. They make $14.50 per hour with no chance to transition to the higher pay and benefits of traditional UAW auto workers. They live check to check and cannot afford to buy the cars they help build. My heart goes out to them.

These second-class citizens of the new American economy should be the wake-up call to union members everywhere. Is this what we will leave to the generations that follow us? An underpaid tier of workers with diminished hopes and dreams should not be our legacy to the future.

Where Is the Fortitude?

It cools down a little bit by lunchtime, but sometimes I get steamed up about the cavalier attitude of my union representatives at the local and international level. Where is the passion and fortitude of our leadership that once helped propel unionized American workers to a middle-class lifestyle? Don’t they care anymore, or do they simply cling to their positions for the perks of office or their seven-days-a-week, 12-hours-a-day pay?

I feel so angry I wish the lord almighty would choke the voice out of them the next time they croak through another stanza of “Solidarity Forever.”

All is not lost. Rank-and-file union members are organizing to win better contracts. Autoworker Caravan flyers and stickers are showing up in the plant, promoting union ideals of solidarity, equality, and the end of two-tier wages. A forum to discuss these demands is set for Saturday, August 13, at St. John the Baptist Church in Detroit.

The day is almost over. We got decent production today, and I am definitely ready to ring out. Maybe I will have a cold beer before I go to sleep. I hope I dream of a solution to this mess. I am sure it will require people standing together and fighting back.

Alex Wassell is a welder repairman at the Chrysler Warren Stamping plant near Detroit.