LANSING, Mich. -- Thirty years ago, Dan Fairbanks looked at the jobs he could get with his college degree and what he could make working the line at General Motors Corp., and decided the GM job looked better.
He still thinks he made the right choice. But with GM planning to shut down the Lansing Craft Centre where he works sometime in mid-2006, Fairbanks faces an uncertain future.
''Back when I hired in at General Motors 30 years ago, it seemed like a good, secure job," said Fairbanks, president since June of UAW Local 1618. Since then, ''I've seen good times and I've seen bad times. This qualifies as a bad time, in more ways than one."
Many of the country's manufacturing workers are caught in a worldwide economic shift that is forcing companies to slash payrolls or send jobs elsewhere, leaving workers to wonder if their way of life is disappearing.
The trend in the manufacturing sector toward lower pay, fewer benefits, and fewer jobs is alarming many of them.
''They end up paying more of their healthcare and they end up with lousier pensions -- if they keep one at all," said Michigan AFL-CIO president Mark Gaffney. As wages and benefits drop, ''it's the working class that's paying the price."
West Virginia steelworkers are all too familiar with the problem. The former Weirton Steel Corp., which 20 years ago had some 13,000 employees, today has just 1,300 union workers left.
The steel mill has changed hands twice in two years, and, just last month, Mittal Steel Co. told the Independent Steelworkers Union it would permanently cut the jobs of 800 people who had been laid off since summer.
Gary Colflesh, 56, of Bloomingdale, Ohio, said there are few jobs in nearby Ohio or Pennsylvania for workers to move to.
''They're destroying the working class. Why can't people see this?" asked the 38-year veteran. ''Anybody who works in manufacturing has no future in this country, unless you want to work for wages they get in China."
Abby Abdo, 52, of Weirton said workers once believed that if they accepted pay cuts and shunned strikes, they would keep their jobs. Not anymore.
''Once they get what they want, they kick us to the curb," he said. ''There's no guarantee anymore. No pensions. No healthcare. No job security. We have none of those things anymore."
Economists agree the outlook is changing for workers who moved from high school to good-paying factory jobs two and three decades ago, or for those seeking that lifestyle now.
''It was possible for people with a high school education to get a job that paid $75,000 to $100,000 and six weeks of paid vacation. Those jobs are disappearing," said Patrick Anderson of Anderson Economic Group in East Lansing, Mich. ''The . . . low-skill, upper-middle-class way of life is in danger."
GM has said it plans to cut 30,000 hourly jobs by 2008. Ford Motor Co. is scheduled to reveal plant closings and layoffs in January that could affect at least 15,000 workers in the United States and Mexico, analysts say, and is cutting thousands from its white-collar workforce.
Thomas Klier, senior economist with the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, said the transition for manufacturers toward leaner, lower-cost operations has been going on for some time. But the bankruptcy of the nation's largest auto supplier, Delphi Corp., pushed the issue into the headlines.
Its 34,000 hourly US workers could see their pay cut from $27 an hour to less than half of that, although the company is still trying to work out a compromise unions will support. Workers also could have to pay healthcare deductibles for the first time and lose their dental and vision care coverage.
Some of those workers are likely to try to move into the growing service sector, Austin said. But he said the transition can be tough, even if the jobs pay as well as the ones they had -- and many don't.
''Pointing out a medical technician job is available if they go back and get a certificate doesn't solve the issue today for those 45-year-olds who are losing their jobs at Delphi," he said.