Friday, June 5, 2009

Plant Closures Weigh On Workers, Cities

Plant closures weigh on workers, cities

Effects of GM's bankruptcy will ripple throughout the U.S., from Michigan to Ohio to California.

By P.J. Huffstutter and Ellen Lee

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Reporting from Fremont, Calif., and Fort Wayne, Ind. -- Under skies as dark as his mood, General Motors autoworker Orval Plumlee woke early Monday morning and took a deep breath as he turned on the television.

The blue-collar Hoosier, who spent 31 years on the company's factory floors, thought he'd prepared himself for GM to file for bankruptcy. But seeing the news was still a shock. He and thousands of other GM employees now face the stark reality of working for a bankrupt company.

"I'm in shock," said Plumlee, 50, president of United Auto Workers Local 2209, which represents 2,600 workers at the GM truck assembly plant outside Fort Wayne, Ind. "Not knowing whether the future is going to get better doesn't make life any easier."

Across the country, autoworkers and their communities struggled to deal with the emotional and economic ripple effects from the automaker's historic bankruptcy filing Monday. The company announced plans to cut more than 20,000 jobs and close or temporarily halt production in 17 facilities. Eleven of the plants are in the country's heartland; seven of those are in Michigan.

The news prompted nearly 1,000 workers to gather at Michigan's state capitol in Lansing to rally against the closures and the erosion of the country's manufacturing base. Some waved signs that read "Keep It Made in America" while others chanted about preserving worker solidarity.

"This is a punch in the stomach for all of Michigan," Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero said. "We don't accept what Wall Street and the White House wants to tell us, that we live in a postindustrial society. Enough is enough."

Flint, Mich.

For Emily and Rick Hager, the bankruptcy marks the end of a four-generation tradition. The couple's families lived here and worked in GM factories for more than seven decades.

Emily's great-grandfather took part in the GM sit-down strike in Flint during the Great Depression. Rick, who has spent more than 14 years on GM assembly lines in Lansing and Flint, grew up with stories of how the auto industry built the country's middle class.

But as GM's future grew grim, the Hagers struggled with financial uncertainty and public scorn. On the Internet, bloggers sneered about greedy autoworkers and how they are to blame for GM's woes.

"You used to say you were a GM family and people looked at you with pride and confidence," said Emily, 34. "Now they look at us with pity. It breaks my heart."

The couple are trying to plan for life after GM's bankruptcy. Rick, 35, is taking college classes in criminal justice. His 70-year-old mother may move in with the couple and their two young children. Her retiree benefits have been cut; her retirement savings are devastated from investments in GM bonds. The Hagers also face a difficult reality: Once Rick finishes his degree, they may have no choice but to leave Flint and GM.

"I want skills that will translate anywhere we move to," Rick said.

Ontario, Ohio

In a town that GM created, 1,500 workers at the Mansfield-Ontario metal stamping plant learned Monday that they'd lose their jobs when the plant closes next June.

Only a few hundred farmers were living in the rural stretch halfway between Cleveland and Columbus when the plant opened in the 1950s. At its peak, the plant employed 4,000 people and drew parts suppliers to feed the operation, suburban neighborhoods to house workers, and malls for their shopping needs.

But on Monday, a letter from plant manager Don Wine underlined the workers' angst: "While we all have been aware of the challenges in the automotive industry, it's hard learning this impacts us directly."

Ontario Mayor Ken Bender said city leaders had prayed for months that the city would escape this scenario. GM-related revenue accounts for about 30% of the city's general fund, and the recession had already forced Ontario to make cuts. Now, he said, the city would have to lay off employees.

"It's going to be hitting our police patrolmen and street services," Bender said. "It's going to hurt everything."

Fremont, Calif.

Even in California, the news left GM workers unsettled.

Just weeks ago, workers at the New United Motor Manufacturing Inc. facility here were hopeful that the bankruptcy blow wouldn't hurt them as badly as their Midwestern brethren. The plant is a joint venture with Toyota Motor Corp. and produces the Toyota Matrix and the Pontiac Vibe. If GM failed, they reasoned, there might be jobs for them at the world's new largest automaker -- Toyota.

But sales are sliding for the Asian auto giant too.

GM and Toyota are in discussions about the future of their Bay Area joint venture, which is GM's last manufacturing facility in California. GM Chief Executive Fritz Henderson said the company wouldn't receive any vehicles from the Fremont plant once the Pontiac brand is eliminated, and it's unclear whether GM will retain an interest in the plant.

The mood on the sprawling factory floor was somber Monday as workers contemplated their future. At shift's end, they sat in the packed parking lot and listened to their car radios for news.

The bankruptcy has left Leo Gonzalez, 39, nervously tightening his family budget. "We don't know what's going on," said Gonzalez, who has worked there 17 years, most recently in the paint department. "Everyone's a little stressed out."

For Cathy Hayes, the news couldn't have come at a worse time.

Hayes, 53, has had her hours at the plant's paint department cut by a full day. She has tried to refinance her home in Modesto, about 75 miles east of the plant, but four banks have turned her down.

"We knew it was coming. It was something we were preparing for," said Hayes, who has worked at the plant 19 years. "But it is scary."

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