Stability and Security: Relics of the Past?

DETROIT — Nicole Current is a third-generation member of the United Auto Workers who grew up in a middle-class neighborhood on Detroit's west side. Her grandfather migrated to Michigan from the South for the promise of a good factory job and spent his life working in Henry Ford's crown jewel, the River Rouge auto plant. Current, now 39, was 22 when she started working at American Axle & Manufacturing, a General Motors supplier. "We were working seven days a week, 10 or 11 hours a day," Current recalls. "So many people were buying trucks that we couldn't make front and rear axles fast enough to get them to the [automaking] plants."

That was then. When gas prices started to skyrocket, Americans didn't buy as many trucks. Current lost her job in early 2012, along with everyone else at her plant on the Detroit-Hamtramck border. A strike four years earlier left workers with a $10-an-hour wage cut. "Many of our workers were also receiving public assistance after that," Current says, "because the wage was so low." When management pressed for more concessions, the union balked. So American Axle simply shut the plant down.

Like many autoworkers, Current had every reason to think that a full-time factory job would pay enough for her to maintain a middle-class life. At the peak of her career, with a union-guaranteed wage and plenty of overtime work, she made roughly $70,000 a year.

After the plant closed, Current lost her home in foreclosure, and she now pays $560 a month for her own health care — a stretch, she says, when unemployment provides just $362 weekly, an amount that is due to be cut further because of the federal budget sequestration. Her 15-year-old son lives outside Washington with her ex-husband, a former electrical engineer for Ford who found that a civilian engineering job with the Navy was more stable than dealing with the automakers' constant restructuring.

Sitting in her union hall, Local 22, on a nearly deserted stretch of Michigan Avenue — the banner in front boasts, "We Built This City" — Current is more worried about her former coworkers than about herself. "I knew I was bright enough that I could go reinvent myself and work somewhere else," she says. Current is hoping to go back to school and find a program in workplace safety. But having been a union rep at the plant, "I get calls from workers talking about committing suicide or losing their house," she says. "As a union, we're not an employment agency, but you feel like you're trying to carry the weight of the world to help people."

About the only bit of luck Current has had is that housing in Detroit is worth next to nothing. After losing her home in the nearby suburb of Eastpointe, she bought a larger, nicer house on the east side of Detroit, a coup she savors. "Things don't stay bad forever," she says.