Saturday, September 09, 2006

New-era auto jobs still hot

Monday, September 04, 2006
New-era auto jobs still hot
On this Labor Day, thousands glad for work despite lower pay, less job security, fewer benefits.
Louis Aguilar / The Detroit News

SAGINAW -- It almost seemed like the good old days at the United Auto Workers Local 699 meeting hall.

Dozens of the 2,000 new hires at Delphi Corp.'s Saginaw steering plant showed up last week for a hot dog and popcorn social to meet their local elected union officials.

As local reps extolled the benefits of joining the UAW, new Delphi hire Christine Olivares expressed nothing but gratitude, even though she is a temporary worker making $14 an hour with few benefits. That's about half what the UAW workers she replaced were earning, but it's more than Olivares has ever made.

"I really like my job, and I am really, really grateful to get a chance to be in the UAW," said Olivares, 32, a single mother of three. "For me, it's the best shot I have to stop falling behind on my bills and actually be able to save and, you know, provide a future for me and my family."

Olivares' outlook reflects the tenuous position a new wave of Michigan autoworkers finds itself in on Labor Day 2006.

Auto factory jobs once guaranteed a hefty paycheck, rich benefits and a worry-free retirement. They were a ticket to the middle class, maybe even a cottage up north. Now that seems like a sepia-toned image from another time.

Many of the new factory workers are learning firsthand the lessons of a global economy: lower wages, fewer benefits and little job security. The jobs don't promise the American Dream, but they are jobs worth having for Olivares and many others.

The workers at Delphi's Saginaw plant are among thousands of Michiganians rushing to fill the jobs that opened up when scores of autoworkers at General Motors Corp. and Delphi Corp. took early retirements and buyouts.

Delphi and GM won permission from the UAW to hire temporary workers at lower wages to keep their factories running after nearly 55,000 workers accepted buyouts and early retirement packages.

Earlier this summer, Delphi said it had hired more than 2,000 replacement workers, most making $14 an hour. But the number is much higher now. Michigan Works! -- the state's job training agency -- said it helped fill that many jobs in Saginaw alone. The workers were not deterred by Delphi's plans to sell its Saginaw operation as part of its overhaul in bankruptcy.

Thousands more applied for 600 jobs recently filled at the Delphi plant in Flint, according to Michigan Works!

Unemployed and underemployed workers also are lining up for jobs at smaller auto suppliers that don't pay anything close to the wages that prevailed for decades in Michigan.

In Sterling Heights recently, an estimated 4,000 applied in two days for a shot at working for $10 an hour at Faurecia North America, a subsidiary of Faurecia SA.

The jobs used to be done by workers who made $19.50 an hour at Johnson Controls Inc., which recently cut 5,000 workers and closed 16 plants as part of its plan to counter rising costs.

GM, which began hiring temporary workers in the spring to operate through the exodus of UAW workers who took buyouts, has no intention of keeping them, spokesman Dan Flores said. The jobs eventually will be filled by former Delphi workers and GM transfers from plants that may be shuttered. GM won't say how many temporary workers it has hired.

Union benefits in question

Because Olivares and the 2,600 Saginaw and Flint workers took jobs with an auto supplier in bankruptcy, it's uncertain whether they will ever become permanent workers, which means they may never get those UAW benefits.

Yet they are the best jobs available, the job-seekers say.

Just to get a chance at an auto industry job these days in Michigan is a minor miracle. The state has been bleeding auto jobs as the industry undergoes a historic restructuring that has led to massive job cuts.

The number of auto jobs in Michigan has been hovering around 230,000 most of this year, 20,000 fewer than last year. Comerica Inc. chief economist Dana Johnson expects the state to lose another 20,000 by the end of 2007. Many of those will be UAW jobs.

With the loss of high-paying jobs comes the loss of income.

The median household income in Michigan fell to $46,038 in 2005, compared to $46,242 for the nation. It was the first time the state's median income was below that of the nation since the Census Bureau began collecting that information in the 1960s.

Opportunity draws thanks

With a shrinking supply of decent-paying jobs, it's little wonder that people such as William Carlson rushed to apply for a Delphi job in Saginaw.

"This is the best opportunity I've ever had," said Carlson, 32, of Bay City.

"I want nothing more than to keep it."

Like many Delphi replacement workers, he got the job because he was recommended by a family member who worked at Delphi.

In Carlson's case, that was his father. The elder Carlson worked more than 30 years at the plant, earning more than $70,000 annually, including overtime, and provided a solid middle-class life for his family.

With overtime, the younger Carlson could make $30,000, a big improvement from his wages as a clerk at Wal-Mart. At one point, Carlson said, he earned $7 an hour at Wal-Mart, which is non-union. Then, he was transferred to another department, where his pay was reduced to $6.25 and his hours were drastically reduced, he said.

He hopes the higher wages at Delphi will allow him to move out of his family's house.

"When you make what I used to make, you can't really live," Carlson said. "You basically pay for your car insurance. You hope your car doesn't break down, and you can't live on your own.

"I don't mind making less than what other (Delphi workers) make because I know they didn't make the decision to do that. I wish I could make what my father made, but one step at a time," he said.

The next step for him and the other new Delphi hires is to see whether they will become permanent workers. Delphi has delayed that decision until December.

"All we can do is work hard and show that we still want these jobs," Carlson said.

"I know I do."

You can reach Louis Aguilar at (313) 222-2760 or

Buyouts open up jobs

Some of the workers who took early retirements or buyouts at Delphi are being replaced with workers making less pay. A look at how many autoworkers have taken early retirement or buyouts at Delphi and GM:

GM: 35,000 UAW workers took early retirement or a buyouts.

Delphi: 12,600 UAW and 6,300 IUE-CWA workers have taken early retirement or buyouts. More will come from a second round of offers to UAW workers, which expire Sept. 15. The first UAW offers were for early retirement; the second round will include cash buyouts for younger, lower-seniority workers. IUE-CWA is the International Union of Electrical Workers-Communication Workers of America.

© Copyright 2006 The Detroit News. All rights reserved.


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