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America's 'other' auto industry

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"Workers [in the South] understand that in order for them to have a job these companies have got to make money, because if they don't, they're not going to have a job," says Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R), who represents this river city in Congress and who could be asked as soon as next week to vote on a bailout to keep Chrysler and General Motors afloat. "That's the first issue [Detroit auto executives] need to address before they come to Congress asking for a bailout or a loan or whatever it is," he says in a phone interview.

Around the South and especially here on Interstate 85 – nicknamed the "autobahn" for the prevalence of foreign-owned car plants along its stretch – the manufacture of foreign vehicles has jumped 450 percent since 1986. While the Big Three have shed more than 600,000 jobs since 1980, foreign automakers have created about 35,000 jobs in the same period.

The gap between union and nonunion compensation is big: Total benefits put union workers at $36.34 per hour compared with $25.65 per hour. The Big Three's "legacy costs," some economists say, push UAW members' total compensation much higher. That gap, moreover, figures into Southern residents' views on Detroit's worthiness to be rescued from the brink of bankruptcy.

"If you're making $60 or $70 an hour, I can see how you don't want to work for $20," says West Point barber Dewey Rayley, who reports that most of his customers look unfavorably on a federal bailout for the American auto companies. "But that's the thing: What makes you think it's worth so much just to build a car?"

The UAW, for its part, has tried to unionize the international plants in the South, to no avail. Its membership is down 17 percent from 2007, to 464,910 – the lowest since the Great Depression.

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