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Best U.S. factory jobs in rising jeopardy

As productivity abroad rises, US manufacturing is competing by trimming workers and wages.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 15, 2008

Bleak Future? Ford workers listen to CEO Alan Mulally in the assembly plant at Wayne, Mich.

Rebecca Cook/Reuters/file

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A new round of cutbacks by Detroit's automakers carries a larger message – that America's manufacturing workers are under new pressure in jobs where labor unions had once been able to command middle-class wages for assembly-line jobs.

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The point was punctuated this week as General Motors announced the largest ever annual loss by a maker of automobiles. In a bid to restore profitability, GM said it would offer incentives to convince older, highly paid assembly workers to retire early. Ford and Chrysler are pursuing similar worker buyouts.

The moves signal what some analysts say is an accelerating effort to trim wages and workforces. Essentially, the old Big Three are becoming a much smaller three. The pressures facing Detroit fit a larger pattern. Many US manufacturers are facing rising pressure from foreign rivals. The good news is that US factories are becoming more competitive. The bad news is that the needed streamlining is coming at the expense of American workers.

"Those jobs are going and they're not coming back," says Gary Chaison, a labor expert at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. In part, he says, manufacturers see moves such as the job buyouts as "a path for them to become low-cost producers by eliminating the high costs of American labor."

Not every industry faces the same degree of foreign competition from challengers based overseas. The US remains a big manufacturing nation, accounting for about 10 percent of US employment and 12 percent of annual economic output. And the high productivity of American workers still allows them to reap higher pay than their peers overseas.

Furthermore, the falling value of the dollar in relation to foreign currencies makes American workers more competitive globally.

But as worker productivity surges forward around the world, the balance of power has shifted. America's heavy industry isn't producing the number of jobs that it used to.

The US lost 3 million manufacturing jobs between 2000 and 2006, according to the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, citing figures from government reports.

Meanwhile, the average hourly earnings of manufacturing workers have grown more slowly than pay in service-sector jobs, even though productivity has risen much faster for manufacturing workers.

"All of US manufacturing is competing on a global basis," says Michelle Krebs, senior editor of Edmunds's AutoObserver.com, which tracks the car industry.

A weaker dollar should help

One bright spot for US manufacturers: Since 2002, a weakening exchange rate for the US dollar has been helping to make US exports more attractive to foreign buyers.

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