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THE ONLY GOOD NEWS about the massive layoffs that are hitting the U.S. auto industry is that the furloughed workers are not going to have the grim Christmas they would have had if they had lost all their normal earnings.

And yet, some local autoworkers complain that they have heard remarks from area Scrooges saying that they will buy Japanese cars because their neighbors aren't suffering in what's supposed to be a season of good cheer.

Under the labor contracts negotiated this fall between the United Auto Workers and the U.S. car manufacturers, furloughed workers continue to receive about 95 percent of their normal earnings, through a combination of government unemployment checks and company payments.

It's the kind of benefit that speaks about the value of a strong, honest union for workers, but, according to some autoworkers, it has aroused envy among those who do not have such a cushion against hard times at their own companies.

One caller said he has heard people saying they will buy Japanese cars because union wages and benefits have made U.S. cars too expensive.

Even if living wages and good working conditions did make U.S. cars more expensive, it would be a their layoff benefits
poor reason for buying foreign autos.

The United States became the envy of the world in the generation after World War II because of its high living standards. Would the average American be happy if the country continues its drift toward becoming a low-wage nation with fewer benefits, less leisure time and poorer medical care? How many new cars, color television sets, houses or VCRs would be bought in a nation in which vast numbers of workers are without earnings for long periods?

It's important to point out that Japanese cars are not cheaper than U.S. cars. The wages paid in Japanese auto plants are only a dollar an hour or so less than U.S. wages and the gap is narrowing. Furthermore, Japanese autoworkers have lifetime job security, something even the UAW has been unable to achieve for its members at all U.S. auto plants.

Poverty is not the road toward prosperity.

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