Jonathan Cohn

Split on the Factory Floor

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If you go to a car factory these days, you'll discover that not all workers are created equal, even if they're doing the same exact job. Under the agreements that the United Auto Workers signed with Detroit's car manufacturers, as part of the industry-wide federal rescue package, newly hired workers make just $14 an hour. The older ones make $28 an hour or more.

The UAW went along with this arrangement, grudgingly, in order to preserve benefits and salaries for current workers while still giving car-makers the financial relief they needed to survive. And at least of last year, it meant that new hires were making considerably less than workers at foreign-owned competitors in the South.

But the pay divide is starting to cause friction on the factory floor, according to the Washington Post's Peter Whoriskey:

DETROIT -- Among workers building the Jeep Grand Cherokee here, there are few obvious distinctions. Clutching lunch sacks and mini-coolers, they trudge together through the turnstiles at the plant's main gate each day to tinker with the same vehicles, along the same assembly line, performing the same tasks.

Yet they fall into distinctly unequal classes...

"How would you feel if you were on the line humpin' and bumpin' all day and the guy next to you gets twice the pay? How would you feel toward that person?" asked Dale Hunt, a veteran tradesman at the plant and former president of the union local. "Of course there is going to be animosity."

Unemployment in the Detroit area is around 13 percent and, for now, the new hires are simply happy to have work:

"I've got a wife, three kids and a mortgage," said Dealon Norton, 28, who was unemployed for a year and now has a job putting bolts into doors. He is untroubled by the pay gap: "I really needed a job."

Others traded lesser jobs -- one was a $10-hourly nurse's assistant, another was an $8-an-hour White Castle manager trainee, a third was machine operator for a local newspaper -- for the upgrade to $14.

Johnson said he, too, held a job before this, but it was in Texas, at a company that makes car seats. So while he was making about the same wage in the Dallas area, he could afford to fly up and see his family only once or twice a month.

"You gotta be grateful," he said.

But over time, particularly as the economy recovers, the new hires might not be so content:

Ergonomics and mechanization have made tasks easier, but the line's swift pace dictates ceaseless focus. Each chore -- hoisting a power drill, attaching a windshield wiper, attaching a seat -- must be repeated each time a vehicle passes by, which can be every 50 seconds.

Breaks are precisely meted out. During one shift last week, work began at 11 a.m., a 13-minute break was held at 12:47, another 13-minute break was held at 2:40, a half-hour lunch came at 4:30 and a 14-minute break came along at 6:01. Workers left at 7:30.

"I hate my job," said one veteran worker, John, outside the gates one day last week. He would give only his first name. "And there's no way I would do this for $14 an hour. These new cats are getting screwed. This is [nasty] work. You bust your butt. You really do."

You can understand why the union signed off on this arrangement: Asking current workers to give up pay and benefits is tough to do. But you also have to wonder how long this situation can last.

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