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.
"Like the new president-elect says, we need to spread the wealth," said Kenny Solomon, 59, recently retired from the General Motors plant in Spring Hill. "What our union does is try to keep the jobs and the money in this country . . . Nissan, Honda and Toyota have plants here, but all the money they make doesn't stay in the United States."
Solomon, a native of Baltimore, said that when he first moved here he noticed how much people seemed to resist the idea of unions.
"I'm not sure what it was," he said. "That's just not the way they do things here."
Twice over the years, the United Auto Workers have tried to win over the workers at the Nissan plant in Smyrna. The last time, in 2001, an approval vote failed by a 2-to-1 margin. Unlike the GM plant in Spring Hill, the Nissan plant is populated by Southerners.
Pat Saltkill, a retired steel worker who was a union leader at the time, tried to help the UAW get into the Smyrna plant. But he said that the distinction between the union based in the North and the workers based in the South was used to dissuade employees from joining.
"The opponents would use the phrase, 'You don't want the Yankees telling you what to do,' " said Saltkill, a native of Nashville. "People in the South are very loyal to the employers. They were manipulated."
Frank Ward doesn't remember the regional appeal during the union vote. But when he talks about the bailout issue he does bring up the historic differences between North and South. He described what it was like growing up in the area and watching people head to the North to find better jobs in the auto plants there.
"When I was growing up in the '50s, a young man looking for work would migrate from the South to get the jobs at the Big Three, and they lived high off the hog, with big wages -- while we struggled," he remembered. "You know, you can't take forever. The Big Three basically have put themselves in the position they're in."
Adrian Harding, 29, like other Nissan workers, thinks the focus should be on the workers.
"I think the bailout should be for all the companies out there," said Harding, who worked at the Smyrna plant for two years. "What matters is not getting money to the companies but to the American workers."
For all the divisions between the two camps, there isn't much difference in their pay. The GM workers average about $28 an hour, though new workers receive far less. The Nissan workers make about $25 an hour, the company said.
"The overall compensation for a worker is not that different whether it's a foreign or domestic automaker in the U.S. -- they're all in the same ballpark," said Kristin Dziczek, assistant director of research at the Center for Automotive Research at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. "They have to be. Good wages and benefits avoid unionization."
The biggest difference in the labor costs is that the foreign automakers don't have to pay for legions of retirees -- their workers are younger and haven't received benefits that are as generous, Dziczek said.
What may account for the different attitudes toward the union in the North and the South is that jobs at the plants in places like Smyrna are prized.
"It's a prestige thing," Saltkill said. "They'd even give you 10 percent off at the fast-food restaurants there if you work at the plant."
Kathy Ward doubled her pay 27 years ago when she left a purchasing job at a mental health hospital for a purchasing job at the plant. She is now a technician making $24.92 an hour.
"Some were wholehearted for the union, I was wholehearted against," she recalled of the last union vote in 2001. "I don't need anyone to speak my mind for me. And I certainly don't want to pay someone to do it for me. The company has been very good to us."
Indeed, the couple owns a big house -- five bedrooms and three baths -- on an acre of land about six miles from the plant. The mortgage is paid. They have Nissan vehicles for everyday driving as well as a '32 Ford and a '72 Chevelle. They've taken a cruise to Nassau, in the Bahamas, and next year, when Kathy retires at 55, they will take one to Alaska.
"To us, $25 an hour is top dollar," she said, "and I'm very thankful for it."