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10 Years After The Financial Crisis: St. Louis Autoworkers


As you just heard, and as you may remember yourself, the financial crisis and the Great Recession hit millions of people hard, and it was felt in places far away from Wall Street such as Fenton, Mo. In June 2008, Chrysler began closing its two plants in Fenton, Mo. It was a life-changing moment for more than 3,000 auto workers who were laid off there. And, as Mary Leonard of St. Louis Public Radio reports, some of those workers are still feeling the effects of the recession 10 years later.


MARY LEONARD, BYLINE: Chris Paplanus is working the plate at a softball game in Chesterfield, a suburb of St. Louis. Every time he calls a strike, the sidelines erupt.


LEONARD: Paplanus has been umpiring for 20 years. It's mostly for fun, but when he was laid off from Chrysler during the recession, the $38 he earned per game also helped him survive. Calling balls and strikes on this field of dreams helped Paplanus hold onto his piece of the American dream.

CHRIS PAPLANUS: It's what kept me from losing my house. Now it's back to being I do it because I choose to rather than have to.

LEONARD: Paplanus worked at Chrysler for 26 years. He was 50 when the plant closed and took early retirement. But his pension didn't come close to paying the bills. He says he's fortunate to be working at GM even though he makes less than he did at Chrysler 10 years ago. He won't reach top scale of $30 an hour for several more years because of wage concessions his union made during the recession.

PAPLANUS: I've been through the worst period of my life and came out on the other side. I'm not rich by any case, and I'm not broke. What I have put away for retirement is nowhere near what it would have been. But it's a lot more than it would have been if I had given up and just tried to live day to day.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Singing) I took me a press, I took me some steel...

LEONARD: After World War II, the big three automakers - Chrysler, GM and Ford - all had thriving plants in St. Louis, and automakers made a solid middle-class living.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Singing) I built a Dodge, I built a Dodge.

LEONARD: GM is the last plant standing. Glenn Kage is president of the UAW Local here that represents about 4,000 workers at GM. He says the recession wrought many changes, including a two-tiered contract that pays new hires less than current workers - even new hires with years of experience.

GLENN KAGE: It was a cut in pay, and our members have suffered through it, but it's still better than a lot of the jobs after.

LEONARD: Although the nation's unemployment rate has dropped to below 4 percent, Kage says the economy feels different these days, in part because many union jobs lost during the recession were replaced by lower-paying jobs.

KAGE: Well, now it's Wal-Mart. And when you take all those $60,000 a year auto assembly jobs out of the economy, and you replace them with $16,000 a year Wal-Mart jobs, you lose the economic stimulus on $44,000.

LEONARD: The former Chrysler workers say even though they've not recovered financially, they are happy to be back on the assembly line.

KAGE: There's nothing better when you drive down the highway than to see one of our vehicles pass by that we've built. You say, hey, that came out of our plant. We built that. That's pride and joy.

LEONARD: Kage knows that more changes are coming. Automation will continue, eliminating more jobs. But he believes automation will also create good paying jobs for programmers and skilled technicians. And he sees this firsthand. As an electrician, he services the plant's robots.

For NPR News, I'm Mary Leonard in St. Louis.


Mary Leonard