As nightmare scenario unfolds in one plant, auto union fights for American way of life

BELVIDERE, Ill. — Pretend you’re an autoworker and you’re having a bad dream. In your dream it’s 2008, one year after the Big Three — GM, Chrysler and Ford — got away with murder in contract negotiations.

There are now two “classes” of workers in your plant doing exactly the same work but earning unequal pay. The companies said they had to have this “two class” system because it would allow them to save on wages.

You’re one of the “lower class” workers. You work next to someone who makes $30 an hour with health benefits and vacation time. You get $18 an hour, no benefits, no vacation, and can be fired any time.

You’re angry. And so is your friend, an “upper class” worker.

She gets laid off when production slows. The company sends her home early but it keeps “lower class” workers over in the body shop because they work for less.

“All for one and one for all” seems to be a thing of the past.

You can wake up from this “nightmare.” But workers at the Chrysler plant here can’t. They are already living it.

Their union, the United Auto Workers, is determined to see that the nightmare doesn’t become reality for workers anywhere else and has demanded that the “two class” system at Belvidere be abolished.

The system was introduced in 2006 at Belvidere, the only “Big Three” auto assembly plant in the U.S. where it exists.

Forrest Ammons assembles Dodge Calibers, Jeep Compasses and Jeep Patriots at Belvidere alongside workers who make $10 an hour more than he does. Ammons, 35, is what the company calls an “enhanced temporary worker.” This designation sets him and others in his category apart not just from their co-workers but from all other Big Three assembly plant workers.

Ammons and his fellow “enhanced temporary workers” have filed a federal lawsuit claiming the company never made it clear to workers that they were applying for lower-paying positions until they had already committed to taking the jobs.

As bargaining for a new contract begins, GM, Ford and Chrysler will push the UAW for concessions in key areas including wages and benefits and will try to dump responsibility for retiree health care onto the union.

Ammons said he and the other “enhanced temporary workers” are “not temporary at all, we are here for years.” He noted, “We don’t get dental or vision coverage, no pension time, no guaranteed raises and they can get rid of us whenever they want.”

Although Chrysler management refused to give figures, employees said that at least 300 of the 600 “enhanced temporary workers” have been laid off so far.

Full-time Belvidere workers are also angry.

On July 20, David J. Nagy, 42, was outside the UAW Local 1268 union hall on the other side of a cornfield that bordered the plant. He, like most of the full-time workers, was on layoff that began a week earlier, leaving only 30 in the plant.

“They keep sending us home,” he said, “either all week or for a few hours.” He felt it was wrong that a full-time worker in one part of the plant could be sent home early while “enhanced temporary workers” who are paid less are kept on for a full shift in the body shop.

What angered him most, however, was that the secretary in the union office had told him he was ineligible for unemployment benefits. “You gotta be out for two weeks. That’s why they get rid of us for a week and then bring us back in,” he said.

Tom Daniels, 38, another displaced full-timer, pulled up alongside the union hall. After getting off his Harley, he complained, “The companies are a lot better off than they let on. Ford is supposed to be in such bad shape but they are spending over a billion on a new plant in Eastern Europe and they want more from us. We have given plenty. Enough is enough.”

Daniels called the “two class” wage system “un-American.”

“They do the same work. They should get the same pay,” he said.

Daniels also asked, “How long before Chrysler says it wants the lower scale for all of us? They’ll say we all should work for $18.”

William Pruitt, vice president of Local 1268, which represents the Belvidere workers, said his local wants “temporary enhanced workers” to become permanent when the new contract is signed. “At our plant they are no less important than anyone else,” he said.

At Take 20, a bar-restaurant near the plant, the barmaid said she worries about her customers “because it’s not good to see all the things you work for your whole life start to disappear. And, with lower paid people, I make less tips.”

UAW President Ron Gettelfinger began talks with GM and Ford July 23 by assailing the growing rich-poor divide. “It’s not just about us,” he said. “These negotiations are about everybody. We’re bargaining for our country as a whole.”



John Wojcik
John Wojcik

John Wojcik is Editor-in-Chief of People's World. He joined the staff as Labor Editor in May 2007 after working as a union meat cutter in northern New Jersey. There, he served as a shop steward and a member of a UFCW contract negotiating committee. In the 1970s and '80s, he was a political action reporter for the Daily World, this newspaper's predecessor, and was active in electoral politics in Brooklyn, New York.