Janesville31.5°

Local GM workers hope for a bailout

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FRANK J. SCHULTZ
November 23, 2008
— Down at the plant, they still believe.

But it’s getting harder to keep hope alive, with Dec. 23 approaching. That’s the date General Motors lays off workers and stops production of large SUVs in Janesville.


Hope got harder to hold onto last week as GM went hat-in-hand to Congress, asking for a bailout.


“I think everyone is really worried right now, but they still have that hope, and if the bailout happens, I think we have some hope of getting something, but if they don’t get any money, I don’t think that’s going to happen,” said Dave Krauter, a millwright with 22 years in at the plant.


What might happen is that GM accepts a proposal by local and state leaders to bring a new production line to Janesville. But everyone knows there’s no chance of that happening if GM goes bankrupt.


That’s why workers interviewed Saturday supported a government bailout of GM, Ford and Chrysler. The Big Three are asking for $25 billion in loans to keep them afloat.


“It’s almost like a dual fight for survival. You’re not just fighting to keep the plant alive. You’re fighting to keep the whole corporation alive,” said Todd Brien, recording secretary for UAW Local 95.


Some—including former presidential candidate Mitt Romney—argue that the Big Three should be allowed to fail, so that a new, stronger auto industry will emerge. But local workers lean toward the other side of the argument, that a failed auto industry would be a national disaster.


“If GM, Ford and Chrysler go under, you’re talking about a depression,” said Gino Sherrod, a GM electrician with 23 years at the plant.


Sherrod noted that up to three million jobs are tied to the U.S. auto industry, from suppliers such as the local Lear and LSI plants to parts plants to the auto dealers to the service industries that rely on those workers for their customer base.


“GM just wants a little cushion to get them through tough times right now,” Sherrod said.


That cushion could keep retirees from losing benefits, which has huge implications for the economy, locally and nationally, several workers said.


“You’re talking about the retirees, and they’re probably helping their kids get through college, or grandkids. This is a big deal,” Sherrod said.


It’s not just the jobs and benefits. It’s the massive force of volunteers and donations to organizations such as United Way that GM represents, said Ed Martinez, who has put in 30 years at various GM plants.


Janesville’s GM families have become part of a community that has held together, making it a great place to raise children, Martinez said, and he fears that could come to an end.


Congressional leaders have demanded that the Big Three come up with a plan for how they would use the money before taking the plunge. Detroit has pledged to produce that plan by a Dec. 2 deadline.


“I don’t see anything wrong with people being accountable for money that’s lent to them through the government,” Martinez said.


Krauter thinks it’s reasonable for Congress to ask for even more than that: “The top management is pretty loose with their spending. They seem to spend lavishly at the top and cut from the bottom. I think it would be good if they forced them to make a management change.”


Management keeps asking workers to be more efficient, but then they fly private jets to make their case in Washington, Krauter said. “They don’t seem to heed their own advice at the top.”


Critics say Detroit has to change its ways before it deserves help. But GM and the UAW have already gone a long way down that road with their latest contract, Brien said. Yes, the old contract could be criticized, but not anymore, Brien believes.


“Once all is set in stone, labor costs would be lower than Toyota’s,” Brien has heard.


“The workers down there are still doing a great job, even though people are kind of somber and sad,” Brien said. “Most people I talk to, they still have a positive attitude.”


Janesville still has a lot to offer, the workers said.


Sherrod said Janesville sends people to Arlington, Texas—the other U.S. plant making Suburbans and Tahoes—to show how to get the quality of their paint jobs up to Janesville’s level.


And Krauter hears from workers who have transferred to other GM plants who tell him that those plants are years behind Janesville’s quality initiatives.


The hope that GM won’t abandon Janesville is based, in part, on stories of Janesville’s quality workforce.


“We hear that, but I think the bottom line is money,” Krauter said. “As much as they like what they see, if the money isn’t there, it isn’t going to happen.”


Workers still believe they’re among the best workers in GM, Brien said. “That’s not just saying things to try and make us feel good. It’s a true statement. Our workforce is a resilient workforce, and we’re the type that can bounce back from adversity.”


Workers said production goes on as usual, with quality still Job 1.


“That’s still going on, and I’ll guarantee it’ll go on down to the last vehicle,” Martinez said. There’s a lot of pride down there.”



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