But take it from me – while factory jobs might have been a ticket to the middle class a generation ago, they are no longer a guarantee of a decent living today.
For the past 10 years, I've worked as a welder at an auto factory in Piedmont, Alabama. Wages start around $10 an hour for full-time workers at our plant. The company has gutted our health insurance, which now eats out a huge portion of our paychecks. For years, we had no voice on the job to request even basic things like functioning air conditioning in the sweltering summer heat. A chance at the "middle class" has seemed like a complete dream.
That is, until recently, when I joined other workers at the factory and voted to form a union with the United Auto Workers. We made this decision because we had our backs up against the wall – and we could see that the only way to get real change was by joining together.
I know that our fight is just the tip of the iceberg. Manufacturing workers all over the country face the same struggle every day, and it's time that, together, we stood up for a change in the entire industry.
When you work somewhere for a decade, you see a lot of changes. The changes I've seen at the factory over the past ten years have only made it harder for us to do our jobs and make a living. In the past we had basic, but necessary, benefits, like more generous overtime policies, including double overtime on Sundays. But for the past few years, things have been different. Now, the plant manager makes all the decisions.
I breathe in smoke every day because ventilation has gotten worse. It impacts my throat, my sinuses and I imagine my lungs. When my coworkers and I try to talk to management about it, they tell us they'll look into it. But nothing has changed.
Across the country, the story is very similar for many manufacturing workers. Roughly three out of every four auto workers in America now work at parts plants like the one where I work, not at the brand-name vehicle makers. At my plant, the pay is eventually capped at $15.80 an hour, no matter how much experience or how many skills you develop. Many of my co-workers make much less. One way CVG has tried to push down wages is by hiring long-term temporary workers who they can pay less. At this rate, about one in four jobs at the plant is a temp job that pays about $9.70 an hour. Nationally, parts workers employed by staffing agencies are paid almost 30 percent less than workers hired directly.
Living in a small town, it can be hard to believe change is possible. It was a big deal for people at my plant to take a risk and form a union. But ever since we did, I can see the change in the factory – we're already happier at work knowing we can lean on each other for support in our talks with management.
And it isn't just life-changing for us. My wife and I have a 21-year-old son and an 18-year-old daughter who are just starting out in the workforce. Whether it's them, or other young people, I don't want the next kid who starts out at CVG to work more than a decade and still be unable to support themselves.
Now that we've won our union, we're going to be talking to workers all around Piedmont and in Alabama who are facing the same problems we're facing and to show that a better way is possible. And perhaps most importantly, I hope our actions inspire other workers in manufacturing jobs across the country to realize that they, too, deserve a shot at better pay, better treatment, and a middle class job.
Commentary by Alan Amos, a welder at the Commercial Vehicle Group (CVG) auto factory in Piedmont, Alabama.