Take another look at auto workers

This week, Congress is debating whether to provide a financial lifeline to the U.S. auto industry. Many in Congress and the public who oppose direct government loans have a negative view of auto workers, especially Detroit 3 auto workers.

Many say the Detroit 3 doesnít deserve help because their manufacturing employees are lazy, slipshod and overpaid. I disagree, strongly.

Letís set the record straight on auto workers.

In 30 years of covering the auto industry, I have toured more than 50 assembly plants and dozens of parts plants on three continents. I have studied people building cars in the U.S., Japan, Taiwan, India, Germany, France, Spain, England, the Netherlands, Poland, the Czech Republic, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Russia.

As a college student, I worked three summers in Detroit-area stamping plants. I worked on the line making Thunderbirds and Lincoln Mark IIIs at Fordís Wixom, Mich., plant. Last year at Nissanís plant in Sunderland, England, I spent three days training enough to work a shift building Notes and Qashqais.

My point: Over four decades, I have watched, interviewed and sometimes joined many people doing the actual sweaty work of manufacturing automobiles.

And no matter who they are or where they work, auto workers are a lot alike.

• They work hard. Auto work is tough and employees go home tired every day. Because itís repetitive, every motion is studied and refined to eliminate waste. That also means there is no let-up except for scheduled breaks.

• They work smart. Everybodyís cars are better built today than in the past precisely because plant managers and engineers ask the line workers for ways to improve the process. In the 1970s when I worked on the line, workers were told to do exactly as taught and not question the process. The idea back then was to minimize the chance for human error. But global automakers Ė who constantly study each otherís methods Ė have abandoned that approach in favor of actively asking line workers to help. At Sunderland where I worked last year, line workers make thousands of suggestions annually and constantly adapt little changes. Sunderland has a team of hourly workers who invent, build and install dozens of one-of-a-kind machines that improve productivity at individual line positions.

• They get paid. Thatís because automakers everywhere pay a premium to attract better workers, even in low-wage countries. Slovak auto workers make the equivalent of $7 an hour, but thatís about $2 more than the average worker in Slovakia.

• They take great pride in what they do. And this is universal, from Nagoya to Warsaw, from Munich to St. Louis. Every auto worker I know feels in his or her heart that building a car is special.

If you think of auto workers as lazy, over-paid incompetents, I invite you to update your preconceptions. Any auto plant I have been in, I see motivated, hard-working people doing their best to make good vehicles.

These are good folks. Whatever their fate, they deserve a decision based on solid information.

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