Manufacturing workers watch as way of life vanishes

Published: Monday, January 2, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 1, 2006 at 9:21 p.m.
Thirty years ago, Dan Fairbanks looked at the jobs he could get with his college degree and what he could make working the line at General Motors Corp., and decided the GM job looked better.
He still thinks he made the right choice. But with GM planning to end production of the Chevrolet SSR and shut down the Lansing Craft Centre where he works sometime in mid-2006, Fairbanks faces an uncertain future.
"Back when I hired in at General Motors 30 years ago, it seemed like a good, secure job," said Fairbanks, president since June of UAW Local 1618. Since then, "I've seen good times and I've seen bad times. This qualifies as a bad time, in more ways than one."
Many of the country's manufacturing workers are caught in a worldwide economic shift that is forcing companies to slash payrolls or send jobs elsewhere, leaving workers to wonder if their way of life is disappearing.
The trend in the manufacturing sector toward lower pay, fewer benefits and fewer jobs is alarming many of them.
"They end up paying more of their health care and they end up with lousier pensions - if they keep one at all," says Michigan AFL-CIO President Mark Gaffney. As wages and benefits drop, "it's the working class that's paying the price."
West Virginia steelworkers are all too familiar with the problem. The former Weirton Steel Corp., which 20 years ago had some 13,000 employees, today has just 1,300 union workers left on the job.
The steel mill has changed hands twice in two years, and just last month, Mittal Steel Co. told the Independent Steelworkers Union it would permanently cut the jobs of 800 people who'd been laid off since summer.
Larry Keister, 50, of Weirton, W.Va., has 31 years in the mill that his father and brothers all joined. "I'm too old to go back to school. I've worked there all my life," says Keister, who drives a buggy in the tin mill. "I went there straight out of high school. It's all I know."
Though Keister is safe for now from layoffs, he wonders what will happen to the hundreds of friends and co-workers who will be jobless by the end of January.
Gary Colflesh, 56, of Bloomingdale, Ohio, said there are few jobs in nearby Ohio or Pennsylvania for workers to move to. "They're destroying the working class. Why can't people see this?" asked the 38-year veteran. "Anybody who works in manufacturing has no future in this country, unless you want to work for wages they get in China."
Abby Abdo, 52, of Weirton, said workers once believed that if they accepted pay cuts and shunned strikes, they would keep their jobs. Not anymore.
"Once they get what they want, they kick us to the curb," he said. "There's no guarantee anymore. No pensions. No health care. No job security. We have none of those things anymore."
Fairbanks of the Lansing GM plant said the changes are going to force a lot of people to retrench to deal with the new economic reality. For some, it will make it harder to send their children to college or be able to retire when they want. For others, it will mean giving up some of the trappings a comfortable income can bring.
"You're going to see lake property, you're going to see boats, you're going to see motorcycles hit the market," he said. "People get rid of the toys."
Economists agree the outlook is changing for workers who moved from high school to good-paying factory jobs two and three decades ago, or for those seeking that lifestyle now.
"It was possible for people with a high school education to get a job that paid $75,000 to $100,000 and six weeks of paid vacation. Those jobs are disappearing," says Patrick Anderson of Anderson Economic Group in East Lansing, Mich. "The . . . low-skill, upper-middle-class way of life is in danger."

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