Buffeted by change, US auto sector workers resigned to uncertainty

By Luc Olinga, AFP

FLAT ROCK, United States — Detroit, the once-thriving capital of the U.S. automobile industry, has seen most of its jobs move overseas, leaving the remaining workers at the “Big Three” auto plants wondering about the future. As the jobs have vanished so has the security and benefits they once offered that helped make the American middle class the engine of the world economy. When Janet Parker, 46, learned she would be hired by Ford, she was sure it meant the start of a worry-free working life. Eight years later, she is disillusioned. “Things have changed for the worse,” said Parker, who works in a plant building axles and is still not entitled to employee benefits. “It’s declined for a lot of the employees.” The lack of certainty auto workers have in their future is a persistent burden, and efforts by the once-powerful United Auto Workers labor union to stem the tide have borne little fruit. Parker says that income from her husband’s job at a Fiat Chrysler plant is what allows her to make ends meet. “I don’t make enough money to do everything we do,” she said. “It if wasn’t for him, I’d be riding a bike.” The downhill slide for U.S. auto workers began after 2000 and gathered pace in 2009 with the near-collapse of the Big Three — Ford, GM and Chrysler — during the global financial crisis. That year, GM and Chrysler declared bankruptcy and were taken over by the federal government as part of a highly unpopular, USUS$80 billion taxpayer-funded bailout. Ford also laid off thousands of workers and shuttered factories. “Our plant was always working. You could count on that,” said Michael Gilliken, a team leader at a factory making the popular Ford F-150 pickup. But starting in 2005, overtime ended, the first warning sign.

‘You start to get frightened’ One by one, such perks and benefits as free meals and training centers — which had convinced young generations in the region to forgo higher education and follow in the footsteps of their parents — began to disappear. “It shocked us. We were not prepared for that,” said Gilliken, a father of five who managed to save his job thanks to his seniority. “You are talking about selling the car, selling the house. You start to get frightened.” Gilliken had to accept a freeze on pay raises and a pay cut.