Special Report: Is America the sick man of the globe?

Thu Dec 16, 2010 8:42am EST
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By Nick Carey

SAGINAW, Michigan (Reuters) - Not long ago, if you wanted steak for lunch at the Texan Restaurant, less than two minutes drive from the Nexteer Automotive assembly plant, you had to be in the door by 11 o'clock in the morning. If you arrived any later, you joined a long line with other laggards and waited for a table to open up.

With noon fast approaching on a recent day, however, only a handful of customers sat in one of the restaurant's two sections and the other was closed.

Asked how the decline in the U.S. auto industry has affected the local economy, Tammy Maynard, a waitress here since 1988, waved a hand around at the empty tables and said: "You're looking at it, sugar."

Regulars and retirees keep the restaurant in business, while workers at the nearby auto supplier plant buy steak at the beginning of the month when they get paid -- if they come at all -- and then dine on specials over the next four weeks.

"I just keep praying every day that we've hit the bottom and that things are going to get better," Maynard said, "because it doesn't seem like it could get any worse."

The U.S. government may have bailed out General Motors, the country's largest automaker, but it hasn't begun to tackle the broader problems that led to the city's implosion. Doing so, experts say, would require the kind of political will that has not been in great evidence in the country recently.

To the few remaining auto workers left in a city half the size it was in 1960, the America they knew growing up is long gone and things can only get worse.

"We have made concession after concession on wages and benefits and there is no end in sight," said Dean Parm, a worker and union committeeman at Nexteer Automotive, whose hourly wages have been cut to around $17 an hour from $28. "It feels like we're dinosaurs. And we're on the verge of extinction."   Continued...

<p>The abandoned and decaying Packard Motor Car Manufacturing plant, built in 1907 and designed by Albert Kahn, is seen near downtown Detroit, Michigan June 21, 2009. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook</p>