Car Culture

Every three years, the UAW gathers with each of the big three car companies in Detroit to negotiate a new contract. For decades, those contracts guaranteed jobs, good pay, and benefits to generations of autoworkers in Detroit. And established a car culture and a whole way of life in the city and surrounding area. The negotiations kicked off again this week, but the times have changed. Toyota is fast becoming the top-selling car brand in the US, and the big three face layoffs, slow sales, and ballooning employee expenses for pensions and medical coverage. It's make-or-break for both sides, and it's very likely that each will have to give up some of the perks they've fought for decades to gain. If you're a member of the UAW in Detroit or anywhere else in the country, what does the union mean to you... then and now?

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I had been living on the corner of Woodward and Seward, across from the Algiers Motel, had just finished my master's (a project working on appreciation of cultural diversity) and had already packed my belongings for a move to NYC. However, this whole summer was a pivitol point in the radicalization of my own life's work. Just four things I'll mention quickly:
1) I had been working at the Youth Employment Service at the Michigan Employment Security Commission and actually wrote a letter in June 67 to the U.S. Secretary of Labor saying the the advertizing (going through revolving doors, falling into a pool with a cement block chained to an ankle, etc.) was adding fuel to the anger of youth. We had very few jobs for youth and they were coming in all the time asking for help. Hopelessness was everywhere!
2) All my belongings were stored on W. Jefferson and I would watch the news all the time wondering if anything would survive. (Thankfully, they did.)
3) The Algiers Motel Incident by Hersey about what happened at the motel that night shocked me about the abuse of authority. Although I read the book and about the incident later, it was one of the books that changed the way I thought. In this case, particularly because I felt I had been living right in the middle of all of that and never really experienced the intensity of it, I never looked at authority the same way again -- civil rights, anti-war, women's rights, etc. And all of my life's work is a result of having "missed" that experience, but feeling so connected to it.
4) I returned to the city for a conference the day after Martin Luther King was killed. When I got to the airport, the car rental place made me sign an agreement saying I was responsible for the car because I was taking it into a area of civil unrest (even though there was no civil unrest at the time). Clearly, the riots had had an impact on business behavior.

Sent by Alice Eichholz | 2:43 PM | 7-26-2007

I am an auto worker in Syracuse, NY. My Grandfather and Father both receive UAW pensions, I myself will not. After 13 years of very hard work, I am leaving the company to work for a masters degree. It was very hard to explain to my Father why I was leaving, in his day pensions were a given. Those days are numberd and I would rather start over at 35 years old rather than 55. PS I will always drive a UAW built vehicle no matter where I work!

Sent by Sean Burke | 3:46 PM | 7-26-2007

I must take sharp issue with the UAW electrician who protested that he's not overpaid and spoiled while characterizing non union workers at transpant car makers as lacking pride in their work.

There's a reason Ford cars have the negative Fix OR Replace Daily moniker. My last car was a Ford Probe and the kinds of things that failed in it (motorized seat belts, engine gasket, A/C compressor AND condensor, creaks, leaks have not gone wrong on my wife's similar vintage Toyota Corolla.

Toyota understands the concept of continuous improvement and robust commonsense design that is a mystery to the big three. Toyota routinely whips all big three auto makers in reliability. This is in part due to design but also due to a hardworking quality workforce including those U.S.Toyota workers.

And, if you really want to know what it means to be spoiled you just visit one of those GM job pools where workers sit around all day reading and playing games while getting full pay and bennies.

Sent by Rick Evans | 4:49 PM | 7-26-2007

As a retired UAW assembler, I say that the union is my only defense against heartless, exploitive, manipulative corporate executives and their helpers. Without the union we would be Wal-mart bait. The union officers are not playing particularly good defense right now. They accept too many of the corporate PR stories as true (just as you do, Scott, in your summary before your question). Nevertheless the choice for most of us is either union or poverty. I was on six months' disability when I had 23 years' seniority, and then later, another 2 months. Can you imagine what non-union Toyota or Wal-Mart would have done to me?

Sent by Larry Christensen | 8:38 PM | 7-26-2007

I was led to believe that the unions have a stipulation in thier contracts that require them to get paid wether they have cars to build or not which forces the automakers to build cars that just sit in large holding lots. Do the auto unions havethat in thier contracts ?

Sent by Darwin Allord | 10:20 PM | 7-26-2007

Jobs Bank, or what you non autoworkers call "getting paid to sit home" was negotiated as a tool to prevent the companies from outsourcing work. Simply put, if you send my job to Mexico, you'll have to pay me anyway. The big three agreed to it and now it has come back to haunt them.

Sent by Sean Burke | 4:58 PM | 7-27-2007

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