Cautionary manufacturing tales from Alabama

The Ford Rouge plant my great-grandfather toiled in in the early 20th century was a tough, dangerous, dirty place. There’s a reason the Rouge was one of the founding sites of the American labor movement: Workers organized because they were desperate for safety protections as well as job security.

Today, the Rouge looks and operates nothing like the 100,000-employee industrial city it was at its 1930s peak. It’s clean and safe and it also has about 93,000 fewer employees, with many jobs that were once done by humans handled by robots.

Alabama is quickly becoming a booming center for human auto employment, with suppliers attracted to both the state’s strong anti-union policies and low-wage workers. Instead of the comfortable living that the manufacturing jobs of yore provided, Alabama’s auto plants offer poorly-trained workers low wages in work environments where they often risk life and limb. An absolutely bone-chilling recent Bloomberg News article describes an Alabama auto industry that prioritizes productivity over safety with tragic results.

The piece tells the tragic story of 20-year-old Regina Elsea, who was crushed by a robot she was attempting to fix at a plant operated by supplier Ajin USA. Workers at plants like Ajin’s have complained that made Alabama-based auto suppliers skimp on training and safety and push workers to superhuman productivity levels.

Not only are many jobs in Alabama auto suppliers seemingly less safe, they are certainly less lucrative. Alabama auto wages tend to hover around the minimum wage. And while President Donald Trump staked much of his economic agenda on the idea that he would boost jobs in America’s manufacturing sector by making it more difficult for companies to go off shore, Trump is clearly not a big fan of high wages for auto workers. In a 2015 Detroit News interview, Trump predicted that automakers could convince Michigan auto workers to work for less by leveraging the threat of moving jobs to low wage states.

Michigan Future Inc. has consistently argued that it’s time for political leaders on both sides of the aisle to recognize that Michigan’s 1950s manufacturing-based economy is not coming back. Manufacturing jobs account for less than 10 percent of the nation’s workforce. Even if by some miracle Donald Trump brought every offshore manufacturing job back to the United States, the jobs will likely look more like Alabama than Michigan.

If Michigan wants to join states like California, Massachusetts and Minnesota that have thriving 21st Century economies, we need to increase the number of our citizens who have four-year degrees. As my colleague Lou Glazer has pointed out, it’s no coincidence that Michigan ranks 32nd for both four-year degree attainment and per capita income. There is ample evidence that when making decisions about where to set up shop, 21st Century employers are laser focused on talent.

Instead of ignoring that reality and pining for the past, it would be smart for us to invest in improving Michigan’s K-12 and higher education outcomes so Michigan workers are able to compete for jobs that are safe and pay decent wages.

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Kim Trent

Kim Trent was a policy associate for Michigan Future, Inc. She is especially interested in education policy and race, class and gender issues.

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. I read the same article, and it is truly tragic. These companies need to be much more closely monitored, and fines for violations need to be much more severe. Automation and robotics are the reason Trumps plan for restricting imports will have little effect. Even if more production is moved to America, it will require fewer workers. It seems to me that more automation would require more highly skilled workers to manage the machines, which may increase wages for the workers best able to acquire the skills. But fewer unskilled workers would be needed Also, it seems to me that more automation and robotics could make the work environment safer if implemented properly.

  2. This story makes my sad how some have such disregard for others. How human life is replaced with a production quota. How profits and production are more important then people.

    Please minimize the reference to comparing non union and union companies and Trump policies. There may be some validity to that argument but really it comes down to lack of empathy and lack of leadership at these companies. I have my doubts OSHA fines are a deterrent to prevent this behavior, fines just become a cost of doing business.

    As the owner of a 65 year old 1000 employee highway construction company in a very highly competitive and dangerous industry the importance of safety is equal in importance to production and profits. We not only train our employees in the importance of safety it is clearly or policy and in our DNA that every employee regardless of rank who sees an unsafe situation has the authority and responsibility to shutdown an operation until potential unsafe practices are remedied. This is not some idle policy. We applaud our employees when this infrequent circumstance occurs. No job is so important that our employees should ever balance production with going home at the end of a hard days work to their loved ones at home.

    Mind you we are not perfect. We have sadly had fatalities in our company and had injuries. We currently have over 2,500,000 man hours without a lost time injury but we never rest and remain committed and diligent. we are blessed to be very profitable because we put our greatest asset, our employees, first.

    1. Thank so much for your feedback. We are grateful that responsible business owners like you continue to emphasize safety. Unfortunately, with jobs in the manufacturing sector dwindling, workers are too often risking life and limb for low wages. Michigan’s leaders have long known that we need to diversify our economy
      because we’ll never again have the kind of large scale, high wage manufacturing employment we had in the past. If we want our citizens to have access to safe jobs and prosperity , more Michiganders need to earn four-year degrees.

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