Video: Labor pains

By Anne Thompson Chief Financial Correspondent
NBC News
updated 10/20/2005 7:31:15 PM ET 2005-10-20T23:31:15

At one auto tech school outside Denver, where they are training the blue-collar workers of the future, getting a job no longer depends on whom you know, but what you know, in a business that's increasingly high-tech.

“They're not doing as many nuts-and-bolts-type operations anymore,” explains automotive instructor Lloyd Schott, “but a lot of electrical diagnosis.”

But, as they learn more, there are concerns they may not earn more — in the wake of this week's deal between General Motors and the United Auto Workers (UAW) union that cuts health benefits for workers and retirees.

“GM is not just simply the largest auto maker in the world,” says University of California, Berkeley labor professor Harley Shaiken. “It's also the largest private provider of health care. The net result of all of that is you press down at GM, all American workers — union and non-union alike — feel the pressure.”

The industry, which helped build the middle class when Henry Ford paid his workers $5 a day, almost a century later may be changing it again.

“Workers didn't simply earn more,” says Shaiken. “They drove into the middle class. Now we're looking at far more exit ramps from the middle class.”

Thursday, Ford said it will announce a restructuring plan in January that cuts plants and jobs.  Meanwhile, auto parts maker Delphi began presenting proposals to its unions to reduce their pay. Before declaring bankruptcy, Delphi asked for a 60 percent wage cut.

The UAW Thursday acknowledged labor's tough choices.

"The tentative agreement is an essential step toward insuring that General Motors is a competitive and financially sound corporation," said UAW President Ron Gettelfinger.

Retiree John Sanderson wants GM to survive, but he also wants the health care promised him.

“For them to take anything away from me, to change anything, is stealing from me,” he says.

Sanderson isn't the only blue collar worker, past and future, trying to survive in a global marketplace.

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