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America's 'other' auto industry

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With the stakes rising, the once tough-minded union is now "a shadow of its former self," says Nelson Lichtenstein, director of the Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy in Santa Barbara, Calif.

On Wednesday, UAW head Ron Gettelfinger said the union will discontinue a controversial jobs bank – a kind of private unemployment program – and allow the Big Three to postpone payments into a healthcare trust for workers. It's the second offer to reopen contract negotiations in three years.

The UAW concession "is significant and unprecedented," says Harley Shaiken, an expert on labor and the global economy at the University of California, Berkeley. "The fact that the union is willing to jettison [the job bank] shows that they want to clear the political air for a reasoned discussion on why the industry survival is important to the entire economy."

A prevalent right-to-work philosophy isn't the only reason foreign companies like Toyota have located plants in the South. There's also the proximity to a car-loving region with little mass transit and a population that totals that of the Midwest and New England combined. Moreover, the Southern autoworkers are fairly young, meaning few qualify for pensions. General Motors, for instance, supports 400,000 retirees; Toyota supports 700.

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