Warren, Ohio—The switch from traditional pensions to 401(k)s is the most clear-cut example of the risk shift underway in America from business and government to working families. But it hardly is the only one.
Across the country, safety nets that working people once depended on to shield them from economic dislocation -- for example, unemployment compensation, disability insurance, job training and healthcare coverage -- have been scaled back or eliminated. At Delphi, the battle lines have formed not just over retirement, but also wages, benefits, job security, indeed the company's very survival.
Despite the dimensions of GM's problems, GM executives have thus far taken comparatively incremental steps, winning some healthcare concessions from its unions, closing a few plants and reducing white-collar staff. By contrast, Miller has launched what appeared -- at least until recently -- to be a full frontal attack.
Since arriving at Delphi in July, the former Chrysler executive, who has led other troubled companies such as Federal-Mogul and Bethlehem Steel into bankruptcy, has made a series of incendiary remarks seemingly calculated to push the company's unions to within a hair's breadth of a strike.
"Paying $65 an hour for someone mowing the lawn at one of our plants is just not going to cut it in industrial America," he said at one news conference, a reference to the average combined wages, benefits and pensions of an hourly Delphi worker. Miller refused through a company spokesman to be interviewed for this article.
For the Packard Electric workers, what's at stake is a 20-year-old deal that they say guaranteed them lifetime employment in return for concessions that enabled the company to take on low-wage foreign competitors.
"They made the commitment no one would lose their job due to a business decision, and we cooperated on all sorts of changes to make them more competitive," said Harold E. Nichols, the chief union bargainer behind the 1984 deal. Among the changes: instituting a two- and later three-tier wage structure and agreeing to let work once performed in Warren be moved to Mexico and elsewhere.
Nichols is with the International Union of Electronic Workers-Communications Workers of America, which represents the Packard workers. Many of Delphi's 34,000 U.S. employees are represented by the United Auto Workers. The two unions' agreements with the company differ somewhat.
Packard workers are not alone in viewing the 1984 deal as crucial. Company executives, too, have said it represented a sharp break with the confrontational labor-management relations of the past and have sought to maintain key provisions of the bargain in all subsequent union contracts.
"This agreement really makes the union a part of management," Packard chief negotiator Larry L. Haid said at the time of the deal.
Indeed, what most galls Packard workers about the current situation is not just that cutbacks are coming; virtually everyone interviewed earlier this month seemed to accept them as inevitable. It's that after so many years of buying into the ideas of cooperation and teamwork at the heart of the 1984 deal, Miller would haul out the old stereotype of union members as overpaid, under-worked and sliding toward early retirement and wield it as a club.
"Miller makes it sound like everybody around here is getting paid $65 an hour, which nobody is," said Christine Grzelewski, a 37-year-old Delphi worker and mother of two who earns $26 an hour. "We kept our end of the bargain," she said. "Now, he's trying to throw it out."
Grzelewski and her husband Eric, 39, also a Delphi employee, have lived almost their entire work lives under the 1984 deal, carefully plotting their futures around its terms. With the rules about to change on them, the couple fear they are overextended and are scrambling to protect what they can.
Christine was hired in 1988 under a provision of the deal that allowed the company to start new workers at 55% of regular wages or, in her case, $7.59 an hour. It took her 10 years to reach full pay and benefits. Eric was hired under an even more stringent provision that prevented him from getting any raise for several years.
When their son was born, the couple started working alternate shifts so one could always be home with the boy and the family could save on child care. They waited until their daughter was born and both parents were close to reaching full pay before taking out a $137,000 mortgage for a split-level ranch house in a prosperous community near Warren and buying the Silverado pickup truck that Eric had always wanted.
Since Delphi's bankruptcy filing, the couple has turned down the thermostat, reduced the weekly contributions to their Christmas Club, and looked into how much they can save by canceling their cable service and cellphones. Eric may go for a commercial trucker's license so he has something to fall back on in case of layoffs.
"The hardest part of all this is there was no warning," he said recently. "If we could have had a couple years' warning, we could adjust our lifestyle.
"But we've become dependent on our salaries."