The Divide Over Wages
Tyyonna Clark and Napoleon Wright have many things in common. They both started working at Chrysler's Jefferson North factory in 2010. They share a history in hair care: Clark worked as a part-time beautician before Chrysler and Wright still works as a barber on the side. And they each started at $14 an hour -- half the $28 hourly wage veteran workers make -- and now earn $19 assembling Jeep Grand Cherokees 10 hours a day.
It is on that last point that they differ. Clark and Wright are among about 2,200 workers at Jefferson North who earn what is known as the "second tier" wage. They started out making less than $30,000 a year, while veteran workers made almost $60,000. The United Auto Workers agreed to establish a two-tier wage system in 2007 in hopes of boosting employment at the Detroit Three. And it worked: Chrysler has hired more than 10,000 workers in the U.S. since coming out of bankruptcy.
Yet two-tier wages have created divisions on the factory floor, which Clark and Wright illustrate.
Wright sees the second-tier wage as an injustice that he wants to set right. "I'd prefer it to be one wage across the board," said Wright, 43, a single father of three, who also works as a tailor and a photographer to supplement his income. "Equal pay for equal work, that's why the union came to be. And that's what we're doing -- we're doing the same work."
Reckoning to Revival: Rebuilding the U.S. Auto Industry
Ch. 1 Buckle Up: The Potholes Stay Where They Are
Ch. 2 Off-Road: The SUV's Ride From Peak to Valley
Ch. 3 Recalculating: Failed Talks and an Italian Wedding
Ch. 4 Rearview: Obstacles Closer Than They Appear
Ch. 5 Done Dealership: Collateral Damage to a War Hero
Ch. 6 Idling: Father and Son Live Through Layoffs
Ch. 7 Recall: Insourcing Workers From Detroit
Ch. 8 Trim: Moving the Assembly Line Outside
Ch. 9 High Gear: A New Jeep Every Minute
Ch. 10 Differential: The Divide Over Wages
Ch. 11 Ignition: 'Isn't That What America Is All About?'
Post-Crash Site: Five Scenes of a New Life
Wright had worked for Ford for 15 years -- making $28 an hour -- before taking a buyout in 2007 as the automaker was shedding workers to stave off bankruptcy. He had left Ford after his wife died of breast cancer, hoping it would give him more time with his three children. He ended up working late into the evening at his After Five Gentlemen Grooming Services, offering full valet services to celebrities and professional athletes for $150 an hour.
He felt a tragic kinship to Chrysler's comeback story since he also had to rebuild his life after losing his wife when their children were 11, 6 and 4 years old. "I fell in love with the idea of coming out of the ashes like a phoenix," he said. "I did it in my personal life, so I realized it could be done with this company."
So in 2010, when a friend insisted there was no work left in Detroit, Wright, wiry and energetic, applied for a job at Chrysler to prove him wrong. "Give me a week and I'll be working," Wright told him. "I found their website, applied and had an interview a week later."
On his first day in May 2010, Wright was energized "to see where I fit in. I thought, this is my opportunity to help this company come back." Before long, though, he came to believe the two-tier system was dividing the factory floor and demoralizing those paid less. "I'm constantly trying to boost morale," he said. "And that's a difficult and uphill battle."
Chrysler contends it may not have recovered if it hadn't been able to hire new workers at the lower wage. Chrysler said the combined wages and benefits of its UAW workers reached almost $76 an hour in 2007 -- $20 an hour more than Toyota's U.S. workers. By 2011, Chrysler said its combined wage and benefit costs fell to $49 an hour. Two-tier wages "have been enormously important," said spokeswoman Jodi Tinson. "We've been able to add over 10,000 jobs in the U.S. to support growing demand. Would we have been able to do that under the old contract without tier two? I don't know. It certainly would have been more difficult and much more costly."
Clark had been laid off in 2009 from a good-paying job at a company that transported car parts for Ford. With four children 10 and younger, she was having a hard time making ends meet. Working part-time in a beauty salon, Clark made "nothing really, but the tips were good."
Clark, 32, received a text from a friend in November 2009, five months after Chrysler emerged from bankruptcy. There's a rumor, the text said, that Chrysler is hiring. Clark wasn't buying it. "I was like, `They just laid off so many people,"' said Clark, who texted back: "Are you serious?"
She called her mother, who works at Jefferson North. Clark's mom confirmed Chrysler was planning to hire a second shift of workers to build the new Grand Cherokee going into production the following May. To Clark, $14 an hour sounded good. "It looked a lot better than hairdressing," she said. "A paycheck every week with four children? That's good money."
After she applied online, Clark heard nothing as she struggled through the holidays. To give her kids a Christmas in 2009, she had to seek assistance from a philanthropic agency that "adopted" her family.
In January, she received an e-mail that said: "Congratulations, you are moving to the next step in the hiring process at Chrysler."
Clark, normally quiet, threw up her hands and shouted: "Thank you, Jesus."
On June 1, 2010, Clark entered Jefferson North to work final inspection and check for water leaks on Jeeps rolling off the assembly line. She said she didn't resent working beside others making twice as much. "That's what I signed up for," she said. "As long as I have a job that can feed my children, that's all that matters to me."
One thing Clark and Wright agree on: The work inside Jefferson North is grueling. Wright is a floater, filling in on the line for workers who are absent. Clark, after eight months as an inspector, moved to a part of the line where she installs the cloth "headliner" inside the roof of every Grand Cherokee, going down the line at a pace of 72 an hour. She said the work left her with carpal tunnel syndrome in her left arm and now she's on "light-duty" work, typing data into a computer. Chrysler has reconfigured work stations so employees operate "with the efficiency of a surgeon," which has reduced injuries, Tinson said.
Clark is still happy to have that job, though. She hasn't forgotten how hard life was before Chrysler. Each Christmas since then, Clark has organized the workers in her area of the assembly line to adopt a family to provide gifts, clothes and food for the holidays.
"I've been in that place where my family needed to be adopted," she said. "Now I'm able to share that experience with other families in need. It's just a beautiful experience."
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