Auto aid views fall on North-South divide

By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post / December 15, 2008
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SMYRNA, Tenn. - People in this small town surrounding one of Nissan's busiest US car plants have followed the news of the auto bailout with particular interest.

What about us, they wonder.

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 plant in Smyrna. 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 Tennessee, pushed to cut the wages and benefits that Detroit's Big Three pay to a level consistent with what foreign automakers pay nonunion workers at plants throughout the South, such as the Nissan plant in Smyrna.

Ward's husband, Frank, who retired a few years ago from the Nissan plant, said Corker "hit the nail on the head." "It seems like the United Auto Workers would rather have people lose their jobs than give up a few dollars in hourly pay," he said.

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

Many, if not most, of the workers there came 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 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, who 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 to Smyrna he noticed how much people seemed to resist the idea of unions.

Twice over the years, the UAW has 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. "The overall compensation for a worker is not that different whether it's a foreign or domestic automaker in the US; 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.

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.

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