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Auto cuts slam blacks

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Auto cuts slam blacks

African-Americans are hit the hardest as good-paying factory jobs fade away.

Louis Aguilar / The Detroit News

As American auto factory jobs have steadily moved south of Detroit into nonunion plants over the past 25 years, African-Americans have been hit hardest by the loss.

Whites and Latinos also are losing ground, but the decline in stable, high-paying union work is far greater among blacks, according to a study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a Washington-based think tank.

The transition is chipping away at the middle-class lifestyle auto factory work has provided for generations of black families, many who left their native south years ago to pursue opportunity up north.

"Union jobs in auto (plants) has been one of the most importance sources of well-paid employment for African-Americans since World War II," said John Schmitt, one of two economists behind the study.

In 1979, 2.1 percent of all African-American workers in the United States were helping assemble cars and trucks. At the time, there was one nonunion auto plant operated by a foreign automaker in the United States.

By 2004, when there were 27 foreign-owned plants in 11 states, the share of black workers assembling vehicles had fallen more than one-third to 1.3 percent, according to the study. That equates to a loss of about 120,000 jobs, given the current size of the work force.

The shift helped pull down median weekly wages of all black workers 5 percent between 2000 and 2004, to $523, Schmitt said.

By contrast, the percentage of the white work force laboring in auto assembly plants fell 0.2 percentage points, from 1.3 percent to 1.1 percent. The share of Hispanic workers dropped 0.2 points, to 0.6 percent.

The pending layoffs of 60,000 auto workers by Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Corp. could widen that gap.

"The upcoming layoffs (by Ford and General Motors) will have a disproportionate effect on African-American workers," Schmitt said, "as it has for quite some time."

Big 3 toll grows

The majority of auto plants shuttered during the past two decades were run by Detroit-based automakers -- GM, Ford and Chrysler, now a unit of DaimlerChrysler AG. Most of the facilities closed were in urban areas with large black populations, including Detroit, Pontiac, Flint and St. Louis, and workers were represented by the United Auto Workers union.

Today, 28 plants run by foreign makers are mostly in rural areas, mainly in southern states, and none is represented by the UAW, despite several union attempts to establish a foothold. Racial diversity may not be a defining characteristic of their communities.

In 1982, Honda Motor Co. began making Accords in Marysville, Ohio, where less than 5 percent of the population is black. At one point, a group of blacks sued Honda in a bid to force the automaker to hire more African-Americans.

Toyota Motor Corp. is preparing to open an $800 million plant in San Antonio, where blacks represent 7 percent of the population.

Foreign automakers say their work forces reflect the local population of factory towns. Many with plants in Alabama, often dubbed Detroit South, say that means plants have a large black work force.

Hyundai Motor Co. recently opened a facility in Montgomery, Ala., and at least 50 percent of the workers are black, said Hyundai spokesman Kerry Christopher. At least 30 percent of workers are black at a Mercedes-Benz plant in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and a Honda facility in Lincoln, Ala.

At Nissan Motor Co.'s plant in Canton, Miss., the work force is 30 percent black, in line with the area's demographics.

At Honda, the percentage of black workers at six facilities in west central Ohio far exceeds the local black population in surrounding counties, where less than 8 percent of the population is black, said spokesman Ed Miller. Toyota's eight U.S. manufacturing plants reflect the makeup of local communities, where the population is often less than 10 percent black.

Mich. loses auto workers

Overall, the number of U.S. workers building vehicles and auto parts has held steady at about 1 million for the past 15 years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But more than 25 percent of U.S. auto workers are now employed by foreign automakers.

At the same time, more than one-third of Michigan auto workers have lost their jobs.

"I don't need a study to know that black auto workers have taken it on the chin more than other communities," said Sam Kirkland, who works at GM's Pontiac service parts operation facility. He also is shop chair of UAW Local 653 and active in supporting the link between blacks and unions.

"You could walk into a plant and meet black families and you talked to so many proud parents who could afford to send their kids to college," Kirkland said, who is a 24-year veteran of GM. "It's less so the case now. Unions have been so pivotal in helping build a black middle class and, as you can see, without that representation we're losing ground."

The intersection of civil rights and union membership is deep-seated in the black community. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached as early as 1958 that the path to black economic equality was through unions.

But blacks are quickly dropping out of unions and the trend is accelerating. Since 2000, the number of blacks in all unions has fallen 14.4 percent, while white membership has dropped 5.4 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In 2004, the latest data, 167,000 blacks dropped out of unions, about 55 percent of the total loss in union rolls. Blacks represent about 15 percent of all union members.

Since 2000, the UAW estimates it has lost some 20,000 members in Metro Detroit alone, many of them black, though the union couldn't give an exact percentage.

The drop in black union membership has resulted in a widening gap among classes that affects minority communities more, economist Schmitt said.

"Economic growth is much more unequal," he said. "The gap from the middle to the bottom and from the middle to the top is getting bigger. That disparity is going to hit African-Americans hard due to the decline of union membership and auto manufacturing. Those upcoming layoffs will have an impact."

Link: http://www.detnews.com/apps/pbcs.dll/artic.../602160402/1148

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I can tell you that at both the Toyota Cambridge, ONtario plant and the Honda Aliston, ONtario plant there aren't a lot of racial minorities either, both being built on the edge of small cities. They are doing this for a reason: economics. Land is cheap and the labor force is used to low pay so that when the big auto plant opens, the idea of a high(er) paying, steady job is a godsend - who would want a union? I remember when the Aliston plant opened and people from all the surrounding communities (Collingwood, Barrie, Tottenham, etc.) were thrilled to get jobs there. Good luck the union ever organizing!

I don't think anybody in Washington or Ottawa gives a damn about this issue. We are filled with so many happy stories of assembly plants being opened here by Toyota and Honda that nobody cares if a 25 year worker at a Ford or GM plant is given the boot.

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