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The real life of a Chrysler union autoworker (2003)

Think for a minute about the average "UAW autoworker"... What do you visualize? Perhaps some fat, lazy slob who is paid $25 an hour to torque four screws every two minutes? Most likely, since that terrifyingly unfair stereotype of the drunken, lazy bum who whines about everything has existed for decades. I'll be the first to admit that these kind of workers do indeed exist, but they exist everywhere, not just in the auto industry. But the truth of the matter is that they are few and far between nowadays, partly because the workforce is beginning to skew to a much younger age as the older workers retire.

Truthfully, the vast majority of people that I have worked with are drastically different than that awful stereotype described above. We are a very dedicated force of hard workers who struggle endlessly to do the best job we can do. We face the constant onslaught of job cuts, outsourcing and plant closings, causing us to endure frequent layoffs and getting us yanked from plant to plant while losing our seniority. We fight an uphill battle to build the best quality vehicle we can against nonstop changes that impact our job. We are always seeing the workforce trimmed down and thus having more operations added to our job. The line speeds keep getting faster and faster, giving us less time to do even more work. Our jobs are constantly "time studied" to see how much more work they can add to each job in hopes of cutting a few hundred more jobs in the plant.

The engineers who devise our operations never have to actually do them, and no "flunky" line worker is ever going to convince them that it's messed up. So what if we tear out our tendons or endure stress fractures from trying to do some screwed up operation that some industrial engineer came up with? It's not their problem now is it?

Management exists for two purposes... to cut jobs and fire a worker whenever possible. Most of these managers have never worked a day of manual labor in their lives, and God only knows where they find some of them. They don't care about anything except making their number for the day. God forbid the corporation actually used the skills and experience that their employees posess, because that might make them look bad. No, we're simply human robots. We're not allowed to have feelings, dignity or any kind of common sense. And personal problems?? Leave it at the door, buddy!

I think back to the days growing up with a father working in the auto industry. My mother didn't have to work. We owned our home and cars outright and never had bill collectors calling to bother us. But it's not like that today. To have anything to show for the gruelling work we suffer through means we have to be in debt up to our eyelids. We get squeezed from every direction by steadily increasing prices for products and services of rapidly declining quality. Durable goods used to be designed to last a lifetime; now, we're lucky if they're still in usable condition when they're finally paid off. I used to think that having a job that paid $25 an hour with benefits pretty much meant you were set for life. Haha... I sure got a swift kick from reality there, huh? Nowdays, it's hardly enough to raise a small family on without having a wife that works 40 hours a week as well.

We have the UAW to thank for the wages and benefits we have today. But it seems that the UAW officials are more interested in lining their own pockets on their way out than actually preserving any of our jobs. We're constantly jerked around with their stock answers like "I'll look into it" or "I'll know something by Monday." They allow corporate to outsource the core out of the company and eliminate union jobs in the process, while looking the other way. For every one "good" thing we're asked to vote for there seems to be ten "bad" consessions attached to that no one felt we needed to know about until after the vote. We're constantly getting "lean" manufacturing shoved down our throats and end up getting even more work dumped on our already overcycled jobs, just because Toyota can build a car faster. Well, what difference does it make how fast we build it if it's going to be in the repair shop more than it's on the road?

The union seems to just ignore all the overcycling and staffing cuts even though it puts our UAW brothers and sisters on the streets. They happily allow corporate to impose draconian rules upon the workforce so they can exercise more ways to fire us.

What amazes me is this: if Chrysler does finally manage get just the right loophole wiggled into the next contract that allows them to blow the UAW out once and for all, it's going to affect even the retirees and high seniority union officials. But they seem perfectly content to deny us the things that some of our UAW brothers and sisters have fought for with their very lives to earn. They need to remember that someday, it's going to be them begging us to negotiate some retiree's benefit on their behalf. Do they think we're going to forget that it was them who allowed corporate to outsource us right out the door? I think not. What comes around, goes around. Someday, they're going to realize they cut their own throat persuing their greed.

As if we needed more problems to deal with, corporate seems to be executing a skillful plan to undermine the solidarity and unity of our union brothers and sisters. Many of my coworkers see what is happening in the union, but are scared to do or say anything about it because they have allowed themselves to be intimidated by the threat of losing their job or some other retaliation. "Well, if we say anything about it, we'll be the first one fired..." Okay... so just let it fall apart and do nothing! If that's the case, then you have no right to whine about how things are, so just shut up and go bend over like good little sheeple. As for me, I'd rather get fired for fighting to regain lost unity and integrity in the union than simply letting it run the ship into the rocks. Either way, I'm on the street, so I might as well go down fighting.


Last, I have to say that there is one thing that I find to be incredibly demoralizing and insulting... that is when people say that autoworkers are "overpaid slobs" and even say such absurd things like we deserve to lose our jobs. Excuse me??? Some sleazebag CEO can rape a company for a year and bail out with a multimillion-dollar "severance package" yet I'm overpaid at $45k a year?? Some thug-wannabe can grab his privates and cuss into a microphone and make millions of dollars a year, yet I'm overpaid?? Some punk can make millions playing athlete in "pro wrestling" but I'm overpaid for doing an honest day's labor??

I don't know if you feel that way because you have no skills and work for $6 an hour or whether you've lost touch with reality and feel anyone without a Master's degree and seven-figure annual salary is human garbage, but simply put... YOU'RE OUT TO LUNCH! My wages are barely enough to raise a family on in this day and age. I can't honestly comprehend how anyone can raise a family on any less than that. Thank God for the medical benefits, or we'd be $90k in debt because of the heart attack I had while working on the line two years ago! I honestly pity those fellow human beings who are struggling and suffering in the non-union shops for less pay and benefits. I don't know how they can survive, because I've been there before myself.

Before you start jumping to conclusions, let me just say that we don't live an extravagant lifestyle by any stretch of the imagination. You'll find no mall-rat materialism and expensive indulgences around this house! There's definitely no Caviar in our refrigerator... We rent a modest apartment, we have no yacht, snowmobiles, or big screen TV, and we drive 12 year old vehicles. I don't do drugs, I hardly ever drink, and I don't hang out in strip clubs. Yet, we're on the verge of bankruptcy just trying to live day to day... and you think autoworkers make too much. Until you have worked on the assembly line yourself, you have absolutely no right to tell me I'm overpaid. I have just as much right to earn a decent living wage as you do, regardless of what kind of work I do to earn it.

Chrysler factories | Other Opinions | 40-Year Autoworker Bill Wetherholt

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