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US auto workers happy to compete globally

October 21, 2012

SOUTHFIELD (Michigan): Debbie Werner is the face of an American workers’ revolution.

In a break with decades of US auto-union tradition, the prevailing wage paid to new unionised autoworkers is less than that of the average labourer producing items ranging from metal and wood products to food and beverages.

Werner has lived through it all: She joined General Motors Corp. in 2008 before its bankruptcy, lost her job when the factory closed and then was rehired in 2011 when it opened again after the bailout — joining thousands of new workers earning about half what autoworkers were paid before 2007 and without traditional pensions and retiree health care.

Part of President Barack Obama’s re-election platform is his 2009 decision to support an $85 billion bailout for the US auto industry, the subject of a vigorous exchange at this week’s presidential debate. Less understood is the new class of autoworkers who, even before the bailout, started taking jobs that gave up decades of union gains and agreed to an uncertain economic future to bring thousands of jobs back to American factories.

”In 1960, an autoworker was the symbol of high productivity, global leadership and a middle-class future,” said Harley Shaiken, a professor of labour relations at the University of California at Berkeley. “Today, an autoworker is a symbol of all the pressures of the global economy.”

Werner, though, said she couldn’t be happier.

”It’s just an opportunity for me,” said the 30-year-old, who installs seat-belt covers and dashboard parts on Chevrolet Sonic and Buick Verano cars at General Motor’s factory in Orion Township, Mich. “It’s a better life for my kids.”

Since 2007, the United Auto Workers has agreed to let automakers hire new workers who forgo traditional retiree health care, equal pay for equal work, job security and pensions in exchange for jobs that would have gone to Mexico or Asia. About 13 per cent of GM, Ford and Chrysler hourly workers, or 15,155 employees, now are entry level.

The union’s concessions were inconceivable — and easily rejected by labour leaders — just a few years before. Now, as many as half the workers at the Michigan factory assembling Sonic and Verano sub-compact cars make less than the $19.10 hourly average US manufacturing wage and lack traditional union retiree benefits.

The US economic recovery has been built on the shoulders of autoworkers such as Werner, who left a $9 an hour job at a nursing home in November for her $16.78 an hour at GM, and David Ramirez, 39, who earns $18.41 an hour installing mounting brackets for transmissions at the same plant.

Until now, autoworker pay has never dropped below the average industrial wage since Henry Ford instituted the $5-a-day wage for factory workers in 1914, according to a comparison of historic prevailing UAW wages provided by Ford in 2011 and pay data from the US Bureau of Labour Statistics.

Applying the hourly rate for Werner and Ramirez to a 40- hour week, 52 weeks a year, would total about $35,000 to $38,000 annually. Overtime and other premiums, such as for working night shifts, can increase those totals. This is unfamiliar territory for a US autoworker: between the 2011 median income of $50,502, and the poverty line of $23,000 for a family of four.—Washington Post/Bloomberg