Auto Companies Recover, But Jobs Are Harder

Still smarting from the beating they took in the media when General Motors and Chrysler went bankrupt two years ago, auto workers are adamant that they earn every penny they’re paid. They challenge their critics to try working the assembly line for just one day.

Victor Bean of Ford’s Dearborn Truck plant remembers the Southern senators who railed against aid to the automakers. “Just give ’em a taste, the Corkers and the Shelbys,” he says.

Before bankruptcy, auto workers were supposedly privileged characters, with their thick contract book and rigid work rules. Union-bashing media applauded when union heads agreed that competitiveness required fewer rules and “flexible” jobs.

The truth was that the United Auto Workers had given up many rights on the shop floor years ago. For workers on auto production lines, decades of automation, speedup, and job combination have left behind broken bodies and exhausted minds. What’s life on the shop floor like since the ’09 meltdown?

“The quality of your day is not good,” says Denise Perry, who attaches Chevy Cruze door handles at GM’s Lordstown, Ohio, plant. “You’re more exhausted, more frustrated, there’s more sick leave.”

Pam Powell, who works surrounded by robots in a Ford body shop, says, “You’re in a boiling hot factory, you can’t sit down, your arm hurts, your back doesn’t work. When you leave you are not the same person you were.”

As their union leaders negotiate new contracts with the Detroit Three, auto workers await the September 14 results with trepidation. They know that UAW President Bob King is damping down expectations, saying publicly he’s not going for a wage increase—just profit-sharing. (Ford and GM have had no wage increase since 2005, Chrysler since 2006, and all lost cost-of-living in 2009, resulting in a 99 cents per hour pay cut.)

Some hope for relief, then, on working conditions. Can they get back the six minutes’ break time they gave up in 2009? Can they maintain job classifications, which give you some dignity and hope to bid out of back-breaking work after putting in the years?

No one, it seems, dares to dream that workloads, which have been increasing steadily for more than 20 years, could become humane.


Mary Springowksi, a group leader in the Ohio Ford plant that makes Econoline vans, says flatly, “There are no good jobs anymore.”

Auto workers used to recognize fine gradations. The really good jobs were off the assembly line altogether: driving a forklift, sweeping up. Older guys finished their time in the plant at these jobs.

If you were stuck on the line, you wanted inspection or repair—less physical. And within the not-so-good jobs remaining, you wanted one that was not overloaded with tasks, where you could work fast to get ahead for a bit. You wanted to set your own pace instead of the relentless one of the line.

Where have the good jobs gone? They’ve been lost to contracting out, to automation, to lower-paid workers inside and outside the Detroit Three, and to plain old speedup.

Perry calls it simply “less time to do more steps.” She says it takes twice as long to learn a new job as it used to, and three times longer to get smooth at it.

Victor Bean says when he started at Ford’s Dearborn Truck body shop in 2004, there were about 160 workers. Now there are 120. Automation and job combining caused the losses.

“They sped up the robots two summers ago and you can really feel the difference,” says Jeff Brown, who works in a Mazda/Ford assembly plant down I-75. His body shop job on the Mustang line was cut from two workers to one. “My back starts hurting in the first hour of the shift. It’s a lot different, because they’ve cut so many heads.”

GM is down to 50,000 workers, from 78,000 in 2007. Ford is at 40,000, down from 54,000. Chrysler employs 22,000 hourly, down from 40,000.

Along with more work to do in less time comes tighter monitoring and control. Perry describes the Global Manufacturing System that rules her day (adopted from Toyota).

The space to perform her tasks is marked off with lines on the floor—no more working “up the line.” She’s electronically monitored: If the electric torque gun she uses to shoot screws doesn’t detect the correct number of rotations within the footprint of the job, an alert goes off, warning the team leader.

If the problem isn’t addressed quickly enough, the production line shuts down, with the electronic finger pointed at her.


In situations where every second counts, break time is treasured and never enough. Working an eight-hour shift, Perry gets two 10-minute breaks per day, and 20 minutes for lunch.

Because of high customer demand, plants like Perry’s have moved from a schedule of four 10-hour shifts per worker per week, to five 8-hour days. Three crews work around the clock. Don Kemp of GM’s Flint Truck and Bus says his plant will work two Saturdays on and one off to keep up.

Tom Brown, an inspector at Dearborn Truck, says at first workers liked the idea of a four-day week—even if, with required overtime, it was close to 11 hours a day. Many workers drive long distances, transferees from closed plants far away.

Now, he says, they hate it. Ford won’t tell workers their exact schedule until late in the day. “Whenever the company calls more than 10 hours, you can hear a pin drop,” he said, “because those extra 42 minutes are a killer.”

The extra day off is an illusion, too. At the end of the fourth day, which for Brown’s shift is 4:30 a.m., people end up sleeping off the exhaustion.

A predictable consequence of long hours and overloaded jobs is injuries. Workers say their plants are full of the walking wounded, with others off on medical leave for surgery on shoulders and hands. Brown, who has restrictions because of a broken hand, recalls a frantic foreman yelling, “Don’t we have any able-bodied people in here?”

Don Kemp says his job in the truck plant body shop was considered a “good job,” but it tore his rotator cuff. “There was plenty of time to do it,” he says, “but using the same muscles 900 times a night….”


Sweeper jobs, once the province of the soon-to-retire, were casualties of the relentless cost-cutting. Sometimes the UAW organizes the contractor companies that now supply clean-up workers, but they’re still low-paid.

Pam Powell says those jobs made the difference between being able to work till you retire and having “no work available.”

Another coveted job—transporting material from the loading docks—is disappearing, says Victor Bean. Automatic Guided Vehicles are replacing drivers.

Management has a plan, well under way, to go after the best jobs of all in an auto plant: the skilled pipefitters, electricians, and other journeypersons who not only are paid more but used to have a certain autonomy and even free time.

The companies are reducing the skilled trades’ numbers by combining crafts, giving their work to production workers, and contracting out the rest.

Thelma Phillips, an electrician at Ford’s headquarters in Dearborn, says the remaining job titles are electrician, millwright, pipefitter, and “all-around.”

“They don’t train them in what they need to know to be all-around,” she says. “Then they bring in outside contractors because they don’t have the skills.”

Alex Wassell, at a Chrysler plant near Detroit, says not only is management failing to replace skilled workers who retire, there hasn’t been an apprentice in his plant since 2000.

A few good jobs remain. Robert Morris works at a Ford “High Velocity” parts distribution center in Detroit. Warehouse work is far less stressful than the assembly line, he says.

Still, his co-workers are under pressure to increase their parts picked per hour. “Business is up dramatically so pickers are doing a lot more physical labor,” he said. “A route is closing every 15 minutes. It’s run run run.”

Bob King, the son of a Ford industrial relations director, started at the parts depot, then considered a gravy job. He then trained as an electrician before beginning his UAW career.


At least high-seniority workers are relatively well paid for their hard work and their injuries. But since 2007, they’ve been working alongside a new category of “entry-level” workers. Though they’re UAW members, they get inferior benefits, about half the pay, and no ladder to the “traditional” level.

Of the three companies, workers at Ford are the most likely to vote no on the upcoming contract, whether the deal-breaker is money, the fate of those working at half pay, or the working conditions invisible to the outsider but all-important to the worker.

Eric Truss, a die setter at Ford’s Dearborn frame plant, says workers are still proud that they voted down national concessions at their profitable employer in 2009 by a 3 to 1 margin—a first in the Detroit Three.

Members at Dearborn Truck actually booed King off the stage when he came to sell the givebacks. “That moment has not gone,” Truss says. “It demonstrated how much power the membership has.”

Morris says for his members the deciding factors will be money and job classifications. “It says, ‘this is the job I want to do,’” he said. “Without classifications you’re a gofer.”

He notes, though, that his parts center is the only one at Ford that still has all the core classifications. Some are down to just two, general workers and leaders.

Classifications are traditionally a matter for the local contract, and Morris is afraid to “let this go downtown” to UAW headquarters, because higher-ups have let classifications collapse all around the country.

“They’re good people,” he says, “but they’re too long removed from the floor to be able to relate. This is why we have to remind them of what it’s like down here.”


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