No community is getting hit harder than African-Americans by the loss of union auto jobs.
The dwindling number of high-paying factory jobs is chipping away at the middle-class lifestyle that auto factory work has provided for generations of black families, many of whom left their native South years ago to pursue opportunity up north.
“Union jobs in auto has been one of the most important sources of well-paid employment for African-Americans since World War II,” said John Schmitt, an economist who’s studied the trend for the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a Washington think tank. “Like no other profession, it created a black middle class. No profession has replaced it.”
Between 1979 and 2007, blacks lost more than 120,000 auto jobs, Schmitt estimates. The losses hit the African-American community more than whites or Latinos because the share of black workers in the auto industry — 14.2 percent — is much higher than their share of the total labor force — 11 percent.
About 118,000 African-Americans work in the auto industry, down from 137,000 in December 2007, according to Schmitt’s research. He said factory layoffs at Detroit’s Big Three translate into an overall decline of middle-class incomes for the black community.
According to separate study by the Economic Policy Institute, a pro-labor Washington think tank, auto job losses between 2000 and 2004 helped pull down median weekly wages of all black workers by 5 percent, to $523.
Those jobs, and wages, will continue to shrink.
The $17.4 billion federal bailout of General Motors Corp. and Chrysler LLC requires the automakers to seek concessions from the United Auto Workers, with a target of wage parity with nonunion workers at U.S factories run by foreign automakers.
Additionally, the automakers, along with Ford Motor Co., which is not participating in the bailout loans, continue to cut factory jobs as they remake themselves to be profitable as smaller companies that can better compete with foreign rivals.
Nationally, ex-factory workers are the least likely of all workers to find new full-time jobs, and a third will eventually accept work for less pay, often 20 percent less, with less generous benefits, according to studies of displaced workers by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
George McGregor is among the hundreds of thousands of blacks who have benefited from a union auto job. After serving a tour of duty in Vietnam, he made his way to Detroit from his home in the South in search of an assembly line job with one of the Big Three.
Within days he nabbed a job at GM’s now-closed Fleetwood plant and earned an hourly wage, with benefits, that was double the pay of any job he could get back home.
“It was Motown and Cadillacs, man, it was the good life,” said McGregor, now president of UAW Local 22 in Detroit, which represents GM’s Hamtramck plant, where the automaker plans to build the plug-in Chevrolet Volt beginning in 2010. “Nowadays, if you are a UAW worker, the life is still good if you’re still working,” McGregor said, “but, you know the economy’s changed. Not as many working as there once was.”
Last week at a Michigan Works! Office on Detroit’s east side, two former autoworkers, both African-American, were among hundreds looking for work.
“I gave up on making what I used to make — it’s too depressing to think that way,” said DreyLouis Paxton, 28, who five years ago made $18 an hour at an auto supplier assembling components for SUV seats.
That union job lasted for three and a half years before the company went out of business when SUV sales declined, Paxton said. He’s not made a wage close to that since.
Paxton was applying for an $8.50-an-hour job at a hospital with no insurance benefits. “I only got to beat out 300 people, and I don’t have experience,” he said, chuckling as he shook his head.
Levaughn Young lost his house in foreclosure recently, three years after he lost his job of seven years with an auto supplier outside of Grand Rapids. The 33-year-old lives in his in-laws’ basement, with his wife and two kids. He’s relied on construction work, but that, too, has dwindled. “There ain’t nothing close to that kind of pay,” he said of his old auto job.
At the union hall, McGregor said that what he finds startling is having to defend his wages to other blue-collar African-Americans.
“They get upset because they don’t have the same protections we fought hard to get and they sometimes take that out on us,” McGregor said. “I try to explain we are trying lift to everybody’s wages. We wanted to be the standard for workers rights and benefits that all workers — black, white, Latino — should try to earn.
“But instead it’s a race to the bottom.”