MICHELE NORRIS, host:
We also start our look today at the future of American autoworkers. For decades, building American cars was a family affair. Children followed their parents into auto plants, where great union wages lifted them into the middle class and beyond. But the days of the industry's blue-collar aristocracy appear to be numbered. General Motors will eliminate 30,000 jobs and shut 11 plants, factories and distribution centers in the coming years. Ford may follow suit. One of the GM plants is in Doraville, Georgia, in suburban Atlanta. NPR's Frank Langfitt visited workers there to talk about how the industry and their lives are changing.
FRANK LANGFITT reporting:
Amanda Grundusky(ph) grew up in Flint, Michigan, where her parents worked at a GM truck plant. Five years ago, she followed their lead and took a job at the GM plant outside Atlanta. Her lifestyle changed overnight. She nearly tripled the money she'd been making selling eyeglasses.
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LANGFITT: A couple years later, at age 25, she bought a three-bedroom house with a marble fireplace in the country. Last year, Amanda, who only has a high school education, made $58,000 and seemed on her way to the American Dream.
Mrs. AMANDA GRUNDUSKY: I own just a little bit over two acres of property, and the back yard backs all the way up to the Appalachia River. I have deer in the back yard all the time. I love it.
LANGFITT: But as Amanda's fortunes rose, GM's fell. Her plant makes a minivan called the Chevy Uplander; it's not a big seller. As inventory mounted, the plant occasionally sent workers home.
Mrs. GRUNDUSKY: They were telling you that, `You don't have to work this week. We don't need these vans.' That's a pretty clear message that things are not well.
LANGFITT: Last month, GM said it would close the plant after nearly six decades. Amanda probably doesn't have enough seniority to transfer elsewhere. She and her husband Mark(ph) are expecting a child in May, but they can't depend on his salary; he works at GM, too. Like Amanda, he grew up in a GM family. He thought a job there was a sure thing.
Mr. MARK GRUNDUSKY: When I was growing up, we thought, `Hey, GM's going to be around forever.' As big as they were then, we never had, you know, any inkling that they're going to really have to start shrinking.
LANGFITT: Mark's dad Robert(ph) spent 30 years at GM. He suffered through layoffs, but he also made a lot of money; $90,000 one year. Today, he's sitting in the local headquarters of the United Auto Workers, which negotiated those high wages. On the wall is a picture of Martin Luther King Jr. and Walter Reuther, the legendary UAW leader. It's a sign of the union's power in better days. Robert says he would tell the next generation of Grunduskys to stay out of the car business.
Mr. ROBERT GRUNDUSKY: I think I'd tell them not to get into it. It's just too risky right now. I would tell them to go to college and become a lawyer. That's the guys that are making the money.
LANGFITT: Only one other major employer around Atlanta pays such high wages for industrial work; that's Ford, which could close its plant as well. So Amanda and Mark need a new career. Recently, Amanda went to the local technical college to look for one.
Mrs. GRUNDUSKY: I was just coming up. I'm probably going to get enrolled probably for wintertime classes. I'm not sure exactly what area I want to go into yet.
Unidentified Woman: What we have is admission sessions several times a month, and there's one--the next available one is going to be Thursday morning. That's for health care.
LANGFITT: Amanda leafs through a thick course book. She's leaning towards health care because it's generating jobs instead of shedding them.
Mrs. GRUNDUSKY: Yeah, I think it's definitely going to be in the health care somewhere. But that--most definitely whatever I go into, it's going to be stable, secure.
LANGFITT: The US auto industry has gone through layoffs before, but analysts say the situation is worse this time. Gary Chaison teaches industrial relations at Clark University in Massachusetts. He says that with high health-care costs and a growing number of retirees, the generous wage and benefits packages just aren't sustainable.
Professor GARY CHAISON (Clark University): The autoworker is probably going to go the way of the steelworker. What was considered a high-paying, a steady job, the type of a job that you were lucky to get and that you could then pass on to your son and daughter when you left the plant is no longer going to be there.
LANGFITT: It's Christmastime at the home of Joey(ph) and Judy Nicholson(ph).
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LANGFITT: Their son Cameron(ph) plays with a wind-up toy of Steamboat Willie, the Disney character. It dangles from a twinkling Christmas tree. Like other GM families this season, the Nicholsons are facing a new economic reality. Joey worked as a temp at GM for years so he could get on full time and Judy could stay home with Cameron, just as Judy's mom did a generation ago when Judy's father worked as a GM engineer.
Mrs. JUDY NICHOLSON: We waited seven years almost to be a part of GM. That was something that we just dreamed of and never, ever thought that the economy would be hit so hard. It was what we wanted for our family so--and we would be able to raise Cameron the way my family raised us.
LANGFITT: The Nicholsons know their world is changing, that Toyota may soon pass GM as the world's biggest automaker. Joey knows high health-care costs are part of the problem, but he also blames management for making vehicles people don't want. The boxy Uplander competes with Toyota's sleeker, more functional Sienna, with back seats that fold into the floor. This year, people bought nearly twice as many Siennas as Uplanders.
Mr. JOEY NICHOLSON: I have to be honest with you. The product that we have is not something that I would go out and buy myself, either. Our prices are a little bit higher, and the warranties that we offer don't match the other companies. I don't see why we couldn't have some engineering there to catch up with the foreign technologies as far as adding some better looks and better features in our minivans.
LANGFITT: Even some GM workers say their high compensation doesn't make sense in today's economy. Neil Macdonald makes $70,000 a year delivering parts for welding. He also does brickwork on the side. During a dinner break at the plant, he walks into the parking lot and talks about how gold-plated benefits for factory workers will become a thing of the past.
Mr. NEIL MACDONALD: For what we do, we're very overpaid. I go to a doctor, I
pay $5 for my prescriptions. I did a job for a guy the other day--65 years old. He's still got to work. It cost him, he said, a thousand dollars a month for his insurance, and he goes, `Man, you're so lucky.' But these people in here, they don't realize how lucky they are because they don't go out and do a side job to see the way the other people are living. And I know I'm lucky, you know, and we're very overpaid, very overpaid. I know that.
LANGFITT: For people who started in the 1970s, when GM was king, the auto business has been a great ride. Roger Post drives vehicles from one section of the plant to another. He hopes to retire and make a quick getaway before the plant closes in 2008. Last year, he bought a 38-foot motor home for nearly $170,000.
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LANGFITT: He climbs up the stairs and shows off the vehicle's features, including walls that expand with the press of a button.
Mr. ROGER POST: This is the section that slides out. I'll slide it out for you.
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LANGFITT: A couch and cabinets slide back, and the living room floor grows another 40 square feet.
Mr. POST: ...(Unintelligible) can't retire in something like this.
LANGFITT: Roger's driven all over the continental US. After retirement, he has bigger plans.
Mr. POST: I want to go to Alaska. That's probably going to be our first trip. I'd like to go fishing in Alaska, some of them salmons or whatever else they got up there. And my wife's a bird watcher. What they got? Eagles in Alaska?
LANGFITT: Roger has a 22-year-old son named Justin(ph). He used to work as a temp at the Atlanta plant. Roger told him if he wanted to be an autoworker, he should get a job at Toyota. Frank Langfitt, NPR News.
NORRIS: Tomorrow, we meet workers at a thriving Toyota plant in Kentucky who have resisted a union.
And at npr.org, you can see exactly how GM and Toyota compare in production costs and sales.
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