Auto plants retool culture of Cotton Belt

Across the South, workers leave minimum wage - and geographic limits - behind

Arthur Williams and Rudi Kragl walk down the assembly line, inspecting sport-utility vehicles at a Mercedes-Benz plant nestled amid Southern pines.

A decade ago Mr. Williams, an Alabama native and part-time Baptist minister, couldn't conceive of being assistant manager in an auto plant - let alone a German one in his home state.

As for Mr. Kragl, a 23-year Mercedes veteran from Germany, stretching out in a suburban ranch house in Alabama and driving a Cadillac on weekends was hardly on his career map.

But, unlikely as it seems, the South has emerged in recent years as an automotive powerhouse for Detroit to reckon with - in the process transforming local economies not only with jobs but with a global flavor.

Workers, some of whom had never traveled beyond the state lines, now do assembly stints abroad, and local celebrations have incorporated foreign traditions.

"The South has gone from 0 to 60 in the course of a decade,'' says Lindsay Chappell, mid-South bureau chief for Detroit-based Automotive News.

The trend began in the 1980s, as giant auto plants started springing up in old cotton fields and cow pastures from Kentucky to South Carolina.

In their wake came hundreds of partsmaking facilities and distribution centers.

And jobs. Thousands of skilled and semiskilled positions appeared in towns where earning a notch above minimum wage used to be considered decent pay.

The automotive onslaught also transformed work culture, defying stereotypes of the region as economically backward.

Now, paychecks come from global companies with names like Ogihara, Michelin, and Rehau. Workers are being trained to handle multiple tasks and use sophisticated technology.

Global outlook

Some travel to Europe or Asia to learn skills they need at the plants back home. Many interact closely with foreign nationals, perhaps for the first time ever.

"How does that affect dinner conversation? What do parents who work in these companies tell their children? It's significant,'' says Dara Longrear, who heads the Industrial Development Authority in Tuscaloosa County, Ala., home to Vance, where the Mercedes plant is located.

Williams says he's still in close contact with former colleagues who returned home to Germany after finishing a three-year tour of duty in Vance. He even e-mails them sometimes with technical question he encounters.

As for the Germans, some have trouble adjusting to the more formal protocols and crowded conditions back home. On vacations, many come back to Alabama to see old friends and eat barbecue.

"I like the pace,'' says Kragl, a technical specialist at the three-year-old Vance, Ala., plant. "It's not complicated. It's an easy life.''

Similar scenarios have played out at other foreign "transplant" facilities around the South.

In Smyrna, Tenn., Nissan manager Kathy Landry still remembers her first training trip to Kyushu, Japan, as an hourly employee in the paint line at the company's then-new Tennessee plant.

A blonde born in Maine, she was joined on the trip by another line worker, an African-American woman. In Japan, workers had never seen female line workers, let alone a black woman.

"They were a little cautious,'' Ms. Landry remembers. But once they saw the women could do the work, and do it well, the two were graciously accepted, she says.

Now a manager, Landry has traveled eight or nine times to Japan and is an aficionado of Japanese culture. "It opens your eyes to the different people of the world,'' she says.

The transformation in places like Vance defies the image of the South as less globally oriented than other regions of the US.

But by the recession of the early 1980s, Tuscaloosa County's economic-development team was actively working to lure overseas companies. The first success came with Japan-based JVC Corp., which built a plant to manufacture magnetic tape. It has since added a second plant for compact discs.

The JVC plant sparked other changes. University officials launched a Saturday school for Japanese children. It will be expanded soon, since Honda is building a plant in Lincoln, an hour's drive from Vance.

And now there's a German supplemental school for the children of Mercedes managers.

Even Tuscaloosa's annual party, Cityfest, has taken on an international air, with Japanese food, music, and now a German celebration modeled after the fairs popular in southern Germany, where Mercedes was born.

Automakers say a combination of factors drew them to the South: location, land, and an ample labor supply.

For Nissan, good rail access, interstate connections, and a mild climate similar to Japan's favored Smyrna, says company spokesman Tom Groom.

Abundant supply of labor

Mr. Chappell says the Japanese and European transplants were impressed with an enthusiastic labor pool that wasn't wedded to the employee-management structures of the old US auto industry.

Saturn, a division of General Motors, had a similar goal with its Spring Hill, Tenn., plant. Although it remains a union shop - unlike most of the transplants - its leadership sought less adversarial labor-management relations.

The good labor supply means big output: BMW's South Carolina plant, for example, turns out five models built nowhere else and export to more than 100 countries.

The influx has left some small towns grappling with development pressures and labor shortages.

"The impact of these kinds of facilities is very complicated,'' says David Cole, director of the University of Michigan's Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation. "On balance, it's good for an area.''

In tiny Lincoln, residents are celebrating Honda's arrival, as well as bracing for it. Last month, for example, a professor at nearby Jacksonville State University offered the first local seminar on Japanese culture for area businesses and residents.

"I think it's wonderful in that it's going to provide a whole lot of jobs, and good-paying jobs,'' says Ralph Gaines, a local lawyer who lives on a 160-acre cattle farm about four miles from the Honda site. He and his wife also run a small bed-and-breakfast.

But Gaines says he's noticed a lot more "for sale'' signs in front of many of the town's more modest homes. And rumor has it that a large parcel near his land is going to be subdivided.

"I just want them to leave my farm alone,'' Mr. Gaines says.

Still, many of the plant's 1,500 employees may settle in nearby Pell City or Anniston, which have shopping centers, movie theaters, and restaurants.

"I think most of the people in Lincoln are pleased that it's coming. The city's small-town atmosphere - it's going to take time for that to change,'' Gaines says.

Indeed, what hasn't happened in these Southern auto towns is any kind of marked backlash against the newcomers. Almost as a rule, any latent xenophobia is simply overwhelmed by the economic benefits that come with the new plants.

The old "Buy American'' bumper stickers have been replaced by Southern pride in the foreign-owned nameplates produced just down the road.

Williams's teen-age son was underwhelmed when his aunt came home with a brand new Buick. He told her there's only one car he'll drive - a Mercedes.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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