Autoworker Worries About Her Future

Over the past several weeks, in a series of "kitchen table" conversations, American families have been talking about steering their way through economic turmoil. Now the focus is on automakers. Julie Fagel heads a family in Kokomo, Ind., that is trying to maintain a normal home life, despite financial uncertainty.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Over the past several weeks, we've been bringing you a series of kitchen table conversations, as we call them - conversations with American families trying to steer their way through economic turmoil. And today we are going to focus on autoworkers. We start with a family in Kokomo, Indiana, that is trying to maintain a normal home life despite financial uncertainty. NPR's Adam Hochberg reports.

ADAM HOCHBERG: From six in the morning until 2:30 each afternoon, Julie Fagel works on the production floor of one of the world's largest transmission plants. On a fast-moving assembly line, she builds clutches for Chrysler and Dodge minivans. Then when her workday's done, she comes home to a household that's only slightly less hectic.

(Soundbite of crying baby)

HOCHBERG: Three generations of the Fagel family live in this modest house a few miles from the Kokomo plant. There's Julie, the matriarch, her two sons, nine-year-old Gareth(ph) and 18-year-old Cory(ph), as well as Cory's girlfriend Jamie(ph), and Cory and Jamie's new baby, Nicole(ph). And in the kitchen you won't find a table, but rather a menagerie of family pets in cages.

Ms. JULIE FAGEL (Plant Worker, Chrysler): I don't want to keep them out in the garage, it's too cold. So they're all in - two dogs in one big cage, and then the two little dogs have their own cages.

Mr. GARETH FAGEL: And then we've got three more animals. One cat, two lizards.

HOCHBERG: To provide for all those animals and people, Fagel relies on a Chrysler salary of about $28 an hour, roughly $53,000 a year. She also gets child support from her ex-husband who's an autoworker at a different Kokomo plant. Fagel has no complaints about her income. She says her family can afford things they consider luxuries, like a new car, an Internet connection, and digital cable. But with the turmoil in the auto industry, she worries about the future.

Ms. FAGEL: I don't know what's going to happen. I don't know that I'm going to have my job a year from now. So I have been cutting back and trying to save a little more. There was four or five rumors just today, you know. They're going to lay off a thousand of us this week. We just don't know.

HOCHBERG: Though Fagel still has a job for now, she says she's felt some effects of the automakers precarious finances. She used to work a lot of overtime, making extra money that the family would spend going to movies or bowling. But as Chrysler sales tumbled 28 percent this year, Fagel's overtime opportunities have evaporated. And now with company executives saying bankruptcy is imminent without government aid, Fagel's become cautious about every dollar she spends.

Ms. FAGEL: You see my Christmas tree? I have about five presents under it.

HOCHBERG: So is that all that's going to be there?

Ms. FAGEL: No, I do have more. But, yes, I've kept back a lot, you know, not just on Christmas this year, but, you know, I don't do as much running back and forth to town. You know, the kids are, you know, like, can we have some money? No, sorry. No money this week.

HOCHBERG: Like most people in Kokomo, Fagel strongly supports federal aid for Chrysler and other carmakers. In this city that considers itself the birthplace of the American automobile, about 8,000 people work in the car plants. Many, including Fagel, lack college degrees and would have a hard time finding other good-paying jobs. Fagel says she's been attending union meetings at the plant and following news reports about what's happening in Washington. But she also says she's trying to keep her family from worrying.

Ms. FAGEL: I try not to bring it home with me. I try not to stress out about work. And honestly this is probably the first time that I've ever really talked openly about it in front of my little one.

HOCHBERG: Indeed, nine-year-old Gareth says he knows nothing about his mom's situation at the plant.

Mr. GARETH FAGEL: I have no clue.

HOCHBERG: But 18-year-old Cory, the new father, says he's already been making sacrifices.

Mr. CORY FAGEL: Oh, for the baby, I'd love to have a whole heck of a lot more, but that ain't happening. As long as she's got her diapers, food, and her clothes, I'm all right.

HOCHBERG: Cory says he's trying to finish his GED. Then he plans to follow both his parents and make his living working with cars, but he wants to work for himself as a mechanic at a repair shop. He doubts the factory jobs his parents have will be around much longer. Adam Hochberg, NPR News.

INSKEEP: Today on NPR's All Things Considered, we'll meet another Indiana autoworker who feels more optimistic about the future.

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