No more chips, no more work: autoworkers tell their story

Thousands of auto industry workers have been laid off, often for weeks and months, as automakers struggle to cope with the impacts of the global semiconductor shortage.

Semiconductors help regulate the flow of current in electronic devices. They can be found in a wide variety of products, including cars and trucks, which rely on these chips to operate backup cameras, airbags, display systems, and more.

Without sufficient access to chips, automakers have been forced to temporarily freeze production at auto assembly plants around the world, including several factories in the United States.

In Kansas City, Kansas, a General Motors plant has been closed since Feb. 8, leaving about 1,900 hourly workers unemployed for more than four months, according to GM spokesman David Barnas.

the Fairfax Assembly & Stamping PlaNT builds the Chevrolet Malibu and Cadillac XT4, both of which saw lower sales in 2020 as GM prioritized the use of semiconductors in the production of full-size pickup trucks and full-size SUVs, said Barnas.

Clarence Brown, the chairman of the United Auto Workers, Local 31 in Kansas City, called the layoffs devastating and expressed frustration with the bigger picture.

“All I know is the reason my factory and other factories in this country are down is because of the semiconductor. [shortage] and it’s not the workman’s fault, ”Brown said. “When you run out of chips, what good is a $ 30,000 car? “

Over his 40-year career in the auto industry, Brown has witnessed several temporary layoffs and learned to “always have a plan B” by saving for unexpected unemployment in a preventative manner. While he hasn’t struggled financially with the pay cut, Brown said other workers, especially younger ones without experience-fueled foresight, have.

Brown added that while most employees continue to receive a smaller portion of their income during this time off, late payments and other bureaucratic pitfalls create additional financial hardship for those living from paycheck to paycheck. the other.

Full-time hourly workers receive about 75% of their regular wages thanks to a combination of government unemployment and a supplement provided by GM as part of their union-negotiated labor agreement, Barnas said, although he could not specify the number of workers in a particular factory. currently receive the benefit.

Brown said he felt compelled to continue serving as union president, even on a reduced salary, as many union members rely on him as their primary source of information about the Fairfax plant.

“I have a young member here in Fairfax, and these kids have families. They’re nervous, and they’re upset, and rightly so, ”Brown said. “But through it all, through the strike, through the pandemic, through the layoffs… we stand united. We stay together no matter what.

“Feast or famine”

Nicholas Livick, door production team leader at the Fairfax plant, said that although unemployment is difficult, staying home allows him to be with his newborn son, which he considers A blessing.

As a third generation autoworker, Livick grew up in the volatile industry, learning early in his career to fill his savings account in anticipation of an occasional temporary layoff. Given her financial readiness, the Fairfax shutdown certainly didn’t put Livick in financial shambles, but the lack of a full paycheck always means cutting costs where possible – like cooking macaroni and cheese. homemade cheese instead of buying the 99-cent version of Kraft.

“You just have to do what you can to control the damage from excess invoices, whatever you can afford before you have to start canceling and you have to find ways to lower your bills,” Livick said. “Especially in this industry, it’s either party or famine.”

While a closed factory could mean a tighter budget for individuals like Livick, Employee Assistance Program representative Anthony Walker said unemployment tends to have a much bigger impact on mental health. ‘an employee only about his finances.

Walker advises employees struggling with mental health and addiction issues at GM. After experiencing several layoffs over the course of his career, he has learned that the loss of routine and excess downtime that comes with unemployment can be damaging.

“All of a sudden they just have the carpet ripped out from under them and they don’t know how to cope,” Walker said. “If you used to drink and take drugs and end up getting clean and sober, you tend to go back to what makes you comfortable.”

Stress of the unknown is even more prevalent than addiction among assembly plant workers, Walker said. In fact, the first thing he did when he found out Fairfax was shutting down was to retrieve as many documents as possible about stress and anxiety from his office.

With sporadic communication between GM and union leaders, questions about when the plant will reopen, who will be rehired and how many teams will be available have gone unanswered.

Speaking on behalf of GM, Barnas said the Fairfax plant will remain down for at least the week of July 5, but could not specify when the plant will resume production.

“With the global semiconductor shortage affecting all industries around the world, not just the automotive industry, we continue to focus on harnessing every available semiconductor to build and ship our most popular products and most requested, ”said Barnas.

Of course, the semiconductor chip shortage extends far beyond the Fairfax, Kansas plant. Major automakers including Ford Motor Company, Stellantis (which makes Jeeps) and Volkswagen have been forced to slow down or stop production due to business the decisions made at the start of the pandemic.

Production cuts are expected to result in the loss of 3.9 million vehicles worldwide this year, according to the consulting firm AlixPartners.

Companies are even taking preventative measures to avoid a similar chip shortage in the future. Ford announced in May that he redesigned parts to accept chips more accessible than traditional semiconductors.

GM recently began reopening plants in Mexico, Canada and Korea, and is also expected to restart production at a plant in Michigan on June 21 that closed on May 10, Barnas said. Other US factories in Tennessee and Michigan have inactive for a shorter period of one to two weeks in April, but have since reopened.

As the worst of the chip shortage appears to be over, more factories are resuming production. For Fairfax workers, the future remains uncertain. Livick said he hopes to receive an offer from GM to return to work so he doesn’t have to move to find a job.

“If they call me back I will definitely be back there,” Livick said. “As a little joke, I’m going to buy these little packets of crisps and I’m going to give them to my team and say ‘We don’t have a shortage of crisps anymore.'”

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