Janesville69.4°

GM workers face a fork in the road

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JAMES P. LEUTE
August 3, 2008
— Should I stay or should I go?

That’s a question that’s undoubtedly crossed the minds of General Motors workers who are facing the likelihood that their employer might not be in Janesville much longer.


Should they stay in Janesville, ride out GM’s last days here and move that much closer to a GM retirement package?


Or should they take a transfer to another GM plant, collect relocation payments and settle into a job that appears more secure than the one they’ve left in Janesville?


The answer depends in part on whether they are hourly or salaried.


GM has said its network has room to accommodate transfer requests from Janesville workers who want a GM job elsewhere.


So far, more than 30 hourly employees have transferred out of the Janesville plant, said John Dohner Jr., United Auto Workers Local 95 shop chairman at GM.


“We had a lot a few years ago when we lost the medium-duty line, but I wouldn’t say it’s huge right now,” Dohner said of the number of local transfers. “It’s hard for our people to know what plants are going to need help.”


GM announced earlier this year that it would cut one shift of production and lay off more than 850 workers. Weeks later, GM announced that it plans to end production in Janesville by 2010 at the latest.


In the interim, the hourly workforce at the Janesville plant has dwindled to 1,200. In addition to the layoffs, several hundred hourly employees accepted an early retirement/buyout plan the automaker offered all of its U.S. workers.


The salaried workforce has dropped from 195 to 130.


Hourly employees who want to transfer can put in a request for a specific plant on a national telephone system. The workers are hired based on seniority, although that seniority can’t bump people already working at the destination plant.


“My name isn’t on the national list, but I’m thinking about it,” said Mike Dietz, an hourly GM employee with 22 years experience.


Dietz said that most of the workers he’s talked with plan to hang on in Janesville. They’re close to having 25 years in, the level at which GM historically has offered some sort of pre-retirement package.


“I don’t get the sense that there’s an exodus, because a lot of people are pretty close to retirement,” he said. “Maybe the younger workers will go, but we’ve been told we still have 10 weeks worth of work this year and who knows after that.


“If (GM) came out right now and said, ‘We’re done,’ it may be different.”


Dietz considers himself fortunate. If he’d move, he’s got older kids who want to tag along.


“At GM, we’re fortunate that we have options,” he said. “If you work for (local GM suppliers) Lear or LSI, you don’t have those options.”


In addition to the transfer option, hourly workers have contract provisions that make transfers easier on the financial side.


Workers can choose between two relocation packages.


-- A $6,000 signing bonus to help cover upfront expenses after a transfer is granted. When the worker arrives in the new community, he or she will be paid an additional $16,000. Another $8,000 is available if the worker stays at the new location for one year.


-- A flat rate of $4,800.


GM spokesman Tony Sapienza said there’s a fundamental difference in the two packages, other than the money. If a worker takes the first package, dubbed “enhanced relocation,” they agree to give up all seniority rights at the plant they are leaving.


“So if they go to the new plant in a new community and decide they just hate it there, they will have lost all their seniority back in Janesville or wherever the plant was that they left,” he said.


With the basic relocation plan, workers retain seniority at their home plant, he said.


“That’s something the union negotiated hard for,” said Dohner, who left Janesville in 1986 for the GM plant in Fort Wayne, Ind.


“When I went to Fort Wayne, I think I got about $1,200 to go there and nothing to come back,” Dohner said.


Dohner said the relocation packages are not out of line, as GM has been known to pay relocation expenses and buy the homes of transferring salaried workers.


Sapienza said GM handles salaried transfers on a case-by-case basis.


While GM should have spots available for hourly workers, the same can’t be said for salaried workers.


Earlier this year, some salaried workers put in for transfers out of the Janesville plant. Some were granted, and employees moved.


Others, however, were somewhere in the process of finding a new home and moving their families when GM Chairman Rick Wagoner announced a couple of weeks ago that the automaker was reducing its salaried headcount through the remainder of 2008.


Wagoner said the cuts would be made through normal attrition, early retirements and mutual separation programs.


What that meant for salaried workers trying to leave Janesville is that the plants they were going to rescinded their offers, and they were called back to Janesville.


“It’s hard for those people who were right in the middle of everything when (Wagoner) made the announcement,” Dohner said. “It put a lot of people in limbo.”



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