Views on Auto Aid Fall on North-South Divide

By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 14, 2008

SMYRNA, Tenn., Dec. 13 -- People in this small town surrounding one of Nissan's busiest U.S. car plants have followed the news of the auto bailout with particular interest.

Namely, they wonder, what about us?

Nissan is a Japanese automaker, but the Altimas, Maximas and Pathfinders that roll out of the factory are built by locals who are "Americans too," they like to point out. And just like the other automakers, Nissan is inflicting some of the economic pain on its employees, cutting shifts and pay.

For some, the most galling aspect of the bailout is that federal money could go to union workers and retirees -- people, mostly in the North, who at least historically have enjoyed higher pay and better benefits than Southern autoworkers.

"Over here, we're taking days off without pay to keep the company going, but the unions for the Big Three aren't willing to do that," said Kathy Ward, 54, who has worked 27 years at the sprawling plant here. This year her pay has been cut $5,000 because of days off. "Everyone has to give a little in times like these."

The bailout efforts for Detroit's Big Three are laying bare long-held resentments between union and nonunion workers, echoing North-South divisions as old as the Civil War.

The negotiations brought out some sharp contrasts. Some Southern Republican senators, led by Bob Corker of this state, pushed to cut the wages and benefits that Detroit's Big Three pay to a level consistent with what foreign automakers pay to nonunion workers at plants throughout the South, such as the Nissan plant here.

Ward's husband, Frank, who retired a few years ago from the Nissan plant, approves.

Corker "hit the nail on the head," he said. "It seems like the United Auto Workers would rather have people lose their jobs than give up a few dollars in hourly pay."

Heightening the tension here is the proximity to Spring Hill, a small town less than an hour's drive away with a major General Motors plant where the United Auto Workers remain a powerful voice.

Many, if not most, of the workers there came originally from Michigan or Northern states where GM had plants. There, workers are e-mailing and holding signs calling attention to their support for the bailout.

Not surprisingly, they think that the government should help the union by helping Detroit, and that the foreign automakers don't deserve assistance.

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