A factory rat’s take on the race to the bottom

“They have taken untold millions that they never toiled to earn
But without our brain and muscle, not a single wheel can turn
We can break their haughty power, gain our freedom when we learn
That the union makes us strong.”  -Solidarity Forever

My job is in limbo (again). Apparently, all the carpet for all the Big Three and a variety of other companies is underwater in some 1.5 million sq ft warehouse in Pennsylvania. Or floating down a river. In any event, it was all flooded out and now there’s no carpet to put in the cars. So, just in time for the contract to expire, we’re going to be down. Off work. Laid off. The tier-two people have very little protection from this sort of thing. Some of us (like me) have been having a really hard time getting any money from unemployment, and none of us get short work week, the pay that the company guarantees if you at least try to come to work and they have none for you. Actually, this time no one gets short work week, because we’ve been offered the opportunity to come and clean. Yep. Grab a mop. It’s a bitter thing, but what can we do? Everyone is there for the paycheck.

The rumor mill runs at top speed, all the time, no gaps, of course. The assembly line ain’t got nothing on the rumor mill. And the rumor mill reports that two-tier will get a modest raise and no signing bonus. But that the first tier (“Traditional”) employees will get a big, fat huge signing bonus. It has taken on cartoonish proportions. I’ve heard numbers like $20,000. Which, of course, seems ridiculous. But on the other hand, it seemed unfathomable that a company like General Motors could go bankrupt. In the New World Order, all bets are off, I guess.

I have been getting to talk to some new folks, as a result of these crazy plant closures, people coming and going. Sometimes, it seems like people pass through just to provide some moment of perspective, and then they’re gone. One skilled tradesman I met recently was telling me about a plant in Mexico, where workers are bussed into the factory, fed their meals there and then bussed home. The cost of the ride, and the food are deducted from their wages. They’re lucky to clear $100 a week. They do the same work I do, for $15/hr. Which is nowhere near enough. The first-tier people do the same work for $28/hr and haven’t had a raise in about eight years. So you can see how the bottom gets lower and lower, while the top stays depressed. People talk about a glass ceiling for women, the idea that you can “reach for the sky” but the invisible barriers get in the way. Well, this is even worse, the ceiling is coming down on us, pressing lower and lower every contract, every year, every time the price of gas goes higher. I had a friend tell me that when he hired in at Chrysler in 1991, he was making about $13/hr. According to a bunch of websites that I just looked at, gas cost $1.12 in 1991. Adjusted for inflation, that was equivalent to gas at $1.82/gal in 2010. I don’t know about you, but if I had seen gas for under two bucks at any point last year, I’m sure I would have been in the mob lined up to get it. Instead, gas is around $4/gal. That cost of fuel translates into the cost of everything. Food costs more, heat costs more, it costs more to get to work. It costs more to get sick and to get better. In the meantime, wages have gone down and we’re told that we have no right to strike. The only weapon that workers have against management is the ability to withhold our work. The sweat of our bodies’ labors are the currency in which we trade. We work, we get paid. We don’t get paid, we don’t work.

It was a good formula, and a fair one. Now, we’re left wondering what to do. Our options appear fewer and fewer, and worse and worse. Something’s gotta give, it’s just hard to say what.

Instead, we are held hostage by the notion that if we don’t concede to every demand the company makes, it’ll fail and we’ll all be on the bread line. Or we’ll get stuck with an arbitrator-made contract. Well, shit, we’re damn near on the bread line now. I can’t see how conceding any more is going to get us any more. It’s illogical. But there are thousands of us and just a few of them. We need to realize that no one’s foot is big enough to have it on that many necks at once.

In Solidarity,

Stepchild in the Promised Land

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About Stepchild in the Promised Land: Notes from a Tier-Two Autoworker

A third-generation Detroiter, Wayne State grad, mother and tier-two autoworker.
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2 Responses to A factory rat’s take on the race to the bottom

  1. x step chld says:

    If you are not happy just quit. I went back to school while working on the line. I no longer work on the line and love my job. I feel you but it is what it is. If you are not happy move on their is life after the Auto industry.

  2. elenaherrada says:

    Dear Steppie;
    So glad you can write. So glad you went to Catholic Schools while there were schools with books. Keep writing, keep talking and maybe one day you can pay off your student loans. Even if you can’t, my grandfather used to say, ” They can never take away your education.” They can’t even repo it.
    Carry on.

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