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Autoworkers sense end of era

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The industry as they know it is sure to come undone.

Without a loan, they cannot continue. Even with it, change will come quickly and with that the pain of not only restructuring, but likely loss.

"They're anxious, frustrated, scared and angry," says Brian Fredline, a United Auto Workers Local 602 president who has worked for General Motors Corp. for 23 years. He was describing the mood of his 3,000 members who assemble crossover sport utility vehicles like the Acadia at GM's sprawling Delta Township plant near Lansing.

It is more, he confides, than simply jobs drying up, although after 23 years, he has worries for his own family and union membership. For many like Mr. Fredline, whose grandfathers put in more than 40 years each and whose own father worked 37 years in the factory, it's the evaporation of a generation of history and legacy. That in itself brings sadness that a larger family of sorts is dying.

"It all may be coming to an end," Mr. Fredline, 50, said with a heaviness in his voice. "When you've had generations worth of security, that tends to affect you."

Across Michigan, where the auto industry has been a foundation for decades and a backbone of U.S. manufacturing, everyone from line workers, to parts suppliers to auto dealers is watching this week to see if a lifeline from lawmakers will keep them afloat.

Hearings will continue Thursday after a disastrous start last week. Auto company heads were criticized by Congress as arrogant for traveling by private jet to Washington as they came to beg for money. This time, GM Chairman Rick Wagoner plans to drive in a Chevrolet Malibu hybrid. Ford Chief Executive Officer Alan R. Mulally will travel to Washington in a Ford Escape hybrid.

In addition to shining a spotlight on their commitments to more fuel-efficient technology, seen as key to their survival, the auto executives distanced themselves from financial chiefs who took millions of dollars in bonuses. They announced Tuesday that they would accept yearly salaries of $1 in exchange for the $25 billion in federal loans. Mr. Wagoner was to earn $2.2 million this year after taking a 50 percent pay cut in 2006. Mr. Mulally's salary in 2007 was $21 million.

In addition, the UAW has called an emergency meeting in Detroit for Wednesday where it will discuss further cutbacks that could include ending its controversial jobs bank. The talks may call for a reopening of its 2007 contract to show its willingness to make even more concessions after a significant restructuring plan last year.

Whether all of this will be enough to change the public perception, which gnaws at workers in the industry, is another matter.

David Sarkey, a GM electrician for 22 years who retired last year, said he is more than a little bit ticked at how people view his profession.

"Maybe sometimes I didn't break a sweat every day, but I was there baby-sitting the line and it was pressure," Mr. Sarkey said. "In my best years, I made $55,000 tops. I'm sick of people claiming we all make $75 per hour when what they don't realize is that those figures they are citing include lots of things rolled in, including health care."

What bothers Mr. Sarkey even more is that critics tend to focus on the rank and file and not the corporate world.

"Why are the blaming us? It should always be from the top down, but it gets blamed on the worker. That is ludicrous. It's the company that sat on its hands and decided to belch out SUVs, so when gas prices go up, people are buying Hondas and Toyotas. What did they think would happen?"

Likewise, Mr. Fredline can't understand how the public refuses to give the workers credit for recent concessions.

"Our 2007 national agreement was groundbreaking," he said, noting that a two-tiered pay realignment plan has put some wages as low as $14 per hour. "We took billions off GM's balance sheet, so when you hear about the urban myth that we're all out here making $71 an hour, it's just that, a myth."

See related story: Allies bolster bailout blitz for Big Three

Although GM's Mr. Wagoner has steadfastly refused to discuss bankruptcy as an option, even as some members of his board have suggested it, Mr. Sarkey thinks that may be an intended option, designed to remove organized labor from the industry.

"You have to wonder if there is some kind of plot to break the unions," he said. "I know they would love to do that, and filing bankruptcy is a way to get around the contract."

Rob Fehrenbach, an auto industry consultant from Dewitt, Mich., who works at Lansing's Grand River Assembly Plant, said the loan package debates dominate lunchroom discussions with his colleagues. He joined GM when he was 18 and retired in July. Now at 49, with two children in college and another in high school, he returned as a consultant, which means his job also could be on the line without a federal loan.

He said the watching and waiting for Washington is stressful. "We think we are getting dealt a raw hand. It's kind of a double standard they are holding us to. They opened their wallets to AIG and the banking industry, but when GM, Ford and Chrysler came to the table, it seemed like they were under a microscope."

He said lawmakers must realize that if the U.S. auto industry collapses, the trickle-down will be felt across the country as suppliers, dealers and other related auto sectors are crushed.

"I think it's a real risk with Congress playing Russian roulette in having us wait and come back with a plan," he said. "Any of the three of us could fail at any minute if sales lag long enough. If manufacturing goes to its knees, I don't know if the nation can recover from it."

He adds: "We were all talking about it before Thanksgiving and saying that we could live to see one or more of the Big Three fail in our lifetime. It was kind of a sad conversation, but I think everyone here is enough of a realist to say that if things don't get better, they will have to change. People here are holding on and doing the best they can. But it's a hard pill to swallow."

Mr. Sarkey agreed.

"The whole environment has changed so much," he said. "It used to be such an enjoyable place to work. Those who decided to stick it out and not take the buyouts, they go to work every day and it's miserable because they don't know what is happening and if they are going to have a job tomorrow. It's like walking on hot coals all the time."