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.