The End of the Line as They Know It

The End of the Line as They Know It
TALK to Kenneth Doolittle about General Motors, where he once supervised a team of assembly line workers, and he readily speaks with pride about his job and the self-esteem it provided. "I loved all of it - the people, the work," he says. "I was in a position finally where people listened to me when I spoke. I wasn't just a Joe-Nobody. I contributed."
Talk to Mr. Doolittle a little longer and he gradually describes why he decided to take a buyout from G.M. - joining more than 80,000 Big Three employees in the largest exodus of workers from a single American industry in decades.
After G.M. shuttered the plant where Mr. Doolittle worked, it offered him a job back on the assembly line at another factory, an offer he pondered in silent humiliation. At 54, he considers himself "mentally not ready to retire," but his union contract, and G.M.'s woes, required him to return to the assembly line and forfeit the higher rank he had worked years to secure.
So he decided to leave. "I did not want to start over," he said, "not after 33 years."
The exodus that Mr. Doolittle is joining is voluntary. Some have changed their minds. More than 3,000 workers who signed up over the last year to leave Ford and G.M. subsequently decided to stay. These are, after all, the highest-paying blue-collar jobs left in America. Even so, workers are departing from the auto industry en masse, escaping - as they put it in interviews - increasingly difficult working conditions at companies they fear will desert them.
As the workers depart in greater numbers than either their union or their employers anticipated, the exodus becomes more than a long ledger of altered lives. It is an accounting, of course, but an accounting of the most personal and poignant sort. Communities are fragmenting, families are relocating, and years of individual choices tethered to the notion of a certain kind of job in a certain kind of place are giving way to uncertainty, regret and loss of control.
"The question is, Are we seeing a final end to what we have called blue-collar aristocracy?" asks Sheldon H. Danziger, a public policy researcher at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. "Big Steel is gone, coal is gone, shipbuilding is gone - all the big industrial unions are gone or going, except the auto workers. These are the people who had the strongest ability to fight, and now they seem to be giving up the struggle."
The reasons auto workers give for embracing buyouts are almost as numerous as the 18 workers interviewed for this article. Some have already departed from G.M., the first of the Big Three to offer the buyouts, and others are soon to depart from the Ford Motor Company and DaimlerChrysler. Many who left or are leaving were eligible for retirement, having already worked the necessary 30 years. Others have accepted lump-sum payments, often in the six figures, to start over again. Indeed, the voluntary nature of this exodus has made it seem softer or less apparent than the upheavals that have greeted mass layoffs in other industries.
But the common thread running through all of the interviews is that working conditions and benefits, which had become steadily better through the 1970s and even in the 1990s, were unmistakably in decline - and the future unpredictable.
Mr. Doolittle, a stocky man with a narrow mustache, joined G.M. on the assembly line in Lansing in 1973 and rose to become a leader of one of the Japanese-style work teams that first became fashionable in the American auto industry in the 1980s. By 2005, he was a "team build coordinator" with authority over several groups whose job it was to transfer engines from a conveyor into cars, bolt them into place and attach skeins of wires as the cars moved down an assembly line.
When G.M. decided to close his plant in 2005, Mr. Doolittle's seniority gave him every right to transfer to a much newer factory right next door, where G.M. is building a popular Cadillac sedan and is likely to do so for as long as Mr. Doolittle might have wanted a job. But he balked because of the change in stature that would accompany the switch.
Since his departure last year, he has struggled to occupy his time. Divorced, with four grown children, he divides his days between an apartment in Lansing and a trailer parked on a small lakefront plot that he owns north of the city. He has typed out on a laptop three novels "about my life experience." And to make up some of his lost income - his $36,000 pension is 60 percent of his old pay - he works 20 hours a week, at $10 an hour, doing maintenance at Sears stores.
"That is just enough to keep me from watching Jerry Springer every day," he said. "I don't want to sit in front of a TV; I'm too young for that."
STARTING two years ago, the Big Three announced their intention to shed tens of thousands of workers by 2008. The buyouts, negotiated with the United Automobile Workers, are an attempt to orchestrate a huge downsizing in a kindlier, more orderly manner. The offers hold out a variety of subsidies, with the announced goal to tide people over as they make the transition to other jobs and lives.
Ford Motor in particular has told its younger employees, through a series of job fairs, that good incomes await them in other industries, especially if they avail themselves of one of the tuition subsidies that Ford offers as a buyout option. Ford also offers departing employees a six-figure lump-sum payment, which experts at the job fairs suggest could be used to start a small business or to buy into a franchise.
Joe W. Laymon, Ford's vice president for corporate human resources and labor affairs, says his company has successfully used the job fairs to inform workers about opportunities and good pay elsewhere. On a more ominous note, however, he is quick to add that Ford has no other choice but to lay off or buy out workers if the company hopes to remain competitive.
"We believe that the Ford Motor Company will be a viable, profitable entity going forward," Mr. Laymon says. "To get from where we are today to that viable, profitable entity, we will reduce the number of employees working at Ford. Now, we can do it with an involuntary action or we can do it with a combination of voluntary actions and involuntary actions."
Across America, more than 30 million people have been forced out of jobs since the early 1980s, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports, and regaining lost incomes has not been easy. Nearly 50 million new jobs have been created over that same period, according to the bureau, so there are always new opportunities but more often than not at lower pay. Among those who have lost work, only a third held new jobs two years later that paid as well as those that were lost, according to the bureau's surveys of displaced workers. Another third of those displaced were in jobs that paid, on average, 15 to 20 percent less than their previous employment - while the final third had dropped out of the labor force entirely.
The Census Bureau reported a jump in net migration out of Michigan last year: some 42,300 people left, up from 29,700 in 2005. That was far and away the largest outflow from the state since 1984, during the Rust Belt crisis, census data show. In some Michigan neighborhoods that have been home to auto workers, houses are now selling for less than the prices of some of the vehicles rolling off of assembly lines in Detroit, Dearborn, Lansing and elsewhere in the state. While no statistical evidence currently links the buyouts and the migration, Michigan state officials are responding as if that were the case. Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm is promising publicly financed college scholarships for all high school graduates, and she is expanding retraining programs for idled workers. "People who had auto manufacturing in the DNA of their families for several generations," she says, "are all of a sudden finding the rug pulled out from under them."
The exodus is reminiscent of the Dust Bowl migration from the prairie states in the 1930s, when unemployed farmers gave up and trekked west to California. The Dust Bowl migration, on its face, was much more brutal - the number of displaced Okies, as they were called, was far greater than the current number of departing auto workers, and there were not corporate and public subsidies at the time to soften the hardship.
"The Okies did not know whether they would get to their destination before they starved to death," said Daniel Luria, an economist at the Michigan Manufacturing Technology Center. "The labor market prospects for the auto workers are not good, but they have assets. They are not in danger of immediately falling into poverty."
Still, for all their greater means, the auto workers talk of a similar jarring sense of dislocation. The World War II economy eventually lifted the Okies to prosperity, and the buyouts may be the first step in achieving the same result for auto workers, though their fate will not be known for quite a while.
Unionized auto workers can boast of annual wages of $60,000, built on a 40-hour work week that pays $28 or more an hour. Overtime pay helps swell wages to $80,000 or more, but overtime is steadily disappearing as the Big Three's market share declines in the post-S.U.V. era. At the same time, getting off the assembly line, with its grueling pace and mental and emotional fatigue, has become more difficult. Rising seniority once meant transfers after 10 or 15 years to easier tasks such as building seats or moving materials as a forklift driver. Many of these off-the-line jobs have been outsourced.
Skilled auto workers - electricians, millwrights, tool makers - are similarly disheartened. Their skills have been hollowed out, they say. Instead of taking apart and repairing a machine's gearbox, for example, they are limited to swapping out the damaged box for a spare. The damaged box goes for repair to an outside contractor employing less expensive labor.
Beyond all of these specific complaints, auto workers say they fear the future. Plant closings have sown uncertainty. Some auto workers who accepted buyouts explained that they did so to lock in pensions and retiree health benefits. But they worry that these benefits may be bargained away for future retirees in contract negotiations that begin this summer.
Younger workers, as a result, often say they see themselves as having no choice but to bail out. They have grabbed at generous college tuition payments or lump-sum payments as a bridge to what they hope will be, if not better lives, then incomes that someday will at least equal those they earned as auto workers.
JEFFREY VITALE, 39, is in this camp. He is considering a $100,000 buyout from DaimlerChrysler as part of a package that the automaker is just now putting on the table; it was the last of the Big Three to make such an offer.
"Don't get me wrong," Mr. Vitale says. "It is going to be hard financially to leave."
Like many younger auto workers, he has gone to college. He was on his way to becoming a public school teacher when he dropped out in the late 1980s, against his father's wishes, to become a carpenter. "It was hard to tell a 21-year-old making $75,000 a year that you needed a college education to get a job," Mr. Vitale recalls.
A decade ago, he left carpentry and went to work for Chrysler at the Jefferson North assembly plant in Detroit. As a skilled millwright, his $31 an hour often brought in $80,000 a year or more, with overtime. "I was content," he says. "I was bringing home a steady, good paycheck." He married six years ago and he and his wife, a dance instructor, have a 3-year-old son.
Then disillusionment crept in. Mr. Vitale found himself stuck on the second shift, working afternoon and evening hours, unable to spend much time with his family. Periodic layoffs of less-senior workers have kept him close to the bottom of the seniority ladder, which means that he has not been able to qualify for the more desirable day shift.
The outsourcing of skilled work - in his case, maintenance of conveyors and machinery - also grates. "I think they will build cars in this plant for a long time," he says, "but they won't utilize in-house skills as they have in the past."
Two years ago, he was injured. A Jeep he was helping to push back onto a conveyor slipped off and pinned him. He spent 10 months at home convalescing from shoulder injuries that required two operations.
"That is when I realized I did not want to come back to the factory," Mr. Vitale says. "I checked out my college transcript; I needed seven more courses, 21 credits, for a bachelor's degree, and I've been doing the course work online."
He expects to graduate in December, qualified to work as a physical therapist, a profession not likely to pay as much as he now earns, and certainly not with the same benefits. For that reason, he hesitates to leave, but the Chrysler buyout proposals include, in his case, six months of health insurance on top of a $100,000 payment.
"I'm halfway decided to take the money and go," he says. "I'll be 40 in November. Do I wait until they cut my pay in half and there is no buyout? Or they decide they don't need so many millwrights in the plant, and they let me go? They have 136 now, down from 280 ten years ago."
FOR her part, Leann Bies, 48, an electrician at the Ford truck plant in Dearborn, says that accepting a buyout means she will finally have a summer off. "There comes a point in time when you want to leave," she says.
With 29 years of service, one shy of the 30 needed to retire, she qualifies for a buyout that allows her to stay home that last year while collecting 85 percent of her pay, which is $31 an hour or $65,000 annually. She then segues into a normal $36,000 pension as well as retiree health insurance, both nominally insulated from any chipping away that might take place in pending contract negotiations.
In a future job, if she takes one, she won't even try to match her Ford salary, she says. She does not need to. Her husband continues to work at a G.M. plant. Their mortgage is paid off. The last two of her three children are in their final college years. And as an electrician with a state license, Ms. Bies says she can get work in her trade if need be.
Or she could take an office job. While at Ford, she earned a bachelor's degree in business leadership during her spare time. Ford paid her tuition under a program the U.A.W. negotiated. "I am young enough to pursue another career if I choose to do so," she says.
But for all of her creature comforts, Ms. Bies is angry about what she calls shoddy treatment in recent years. "The management of this plant is very disrespectful," she says.
The truck plant, a state-of-the-art operation, produces the still-popular F150 pickup, and there is constant pressure to keep the line moving. "I came into this plant in 2003 and for two years they treated me as if I were dumber than a box of rocks," she says. "You get an attitude if you are treated that way. It is an important part of my decision to leave."
Yet it is only after departing that some auto workers realize what they have lost. Andrew J. Vigliano, 63, is one. He worked 44 years for G.M. in Lansing, mostly on the assembly line, and he still has the wiry body of a younger man. His factory closed last year, and rather than transfer to another plant, he took a $35,000 incentive to retire.
"I was kind of tired of working," he says. "But if you want my true opinion, if I had it to do over again, I would have stayed. I miss the people I worked with every day. Suddenly you cut that right off." As the buyouts continue, some auto workers have turned to jobs that were once hobbies or sidelines to replace lost income: repairing gutters, landscaping, serving as full-time pastors or working as real estate brokers, plumbers and electricians.
Mark Strong, 48, a stocky six-footer, his long graying hair pulled back in a ponytail, went on such a route. A decade ago, he and his brother, Tim, started a small machine shop, first in the garages of their homes in Mason, just south of Lansing, and then in an industrial park, in a small hangar-like building that Mark had constructed.
The venture, Strong Products, has struggled. Tim, 47, a machinist, worked at the shop full time while Mark worked there during time off from his job at G.M., which he joined in 1976. When his plant closed in 2005, he elected to transfer to another plant in Lansing, then still under construction. While he waited for the plant to open, he furloughed himself from G.M. and focused on his machine shop. "I could see then, working full time, that we could grow the business," he said, "and we have."
Their operation now includes several computerized cutting machines, bought on credit, and several employees. Still, with gross revenue of only $200,000 a year, and debts more than double that amount, there is little income left for the brothers. Tim, with a wife and children, draws a salary. Mark, living alone and childless, draws much less money from the business. So when the new G.M. plant finally opened last year, he reported for work.
He didn't like what he found. He had risen over the years from the assembly line to materials handling, in his case delivering cylinders of chemicals at a pace that he controlled. "As long as there was not a phone call saying some chemical was needed, I was on my own," he said.
In the new plant, chemical delivery was automated, and Mark found himself on a much more demanding schedule. He was assigned to deliver parts from the shipping bays to the assembly line at a pace set by the line's speed. He hooked his small tractor to a train of wagons, each loaded with parts, and drove them to stations along the line.
"Every 45 minutes to an hour another tractor-trailer would show up at the shipping bays with the already-loaded wagons inside," he said. "It took me 45 minutes to get the contents to the line, leaving just enough time to get back and hook up the next load."
Automation and more rigorous scheduling may have improved G.M.'s efficiency, but for Mr. Strong, the change was stressful and G.M.'s buyout last year offered an escape. With 30 years under his belt, he collected a $35,000 incentive to retire and began to draw a $36,000 annual pension, or 60 percent of his old wage, along with retiree health insurance.
"I would have stayed," he says, " if the work was similar to the old job and if I had a wife and kids in college, which I don't have. And if I did not have this shop. It weighed in my decision to leave; I had something to do."
UNLIKE Mr. Strong, other displaced workers, including Mr. Doolittle, now working part time at Sears, do not have occupations that engage them. And they miss the work, the income and the way of life that defined their careers as auto workers.
"My children and my grandchildren will never have an opportunity to work at G.M.," Mr. Doolittle says. "My dad made a good living there. So did my brother and my brothers-in-law. That is all over now. It will be 10 to 15 years before G.M. hires again, if it ever does, and at who knows what wages."
-- Never hire a Ferret to do a Weasel's job
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