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Jobs are good for laid-off GM workers, but exodus is bad for city

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JAMES P. LEUTE
July 15, 2009
— About 170 laid-off General Motors' workers in the Janesville area could be back on the job as early as Monday.

But they'd be punching in 500 miles away at the automaker's Fairfax assembly plant in Kansas City, Kan.


GM is mailing notification letters this week to Janesville workers who have signed up for a voluntary transfer to other facilities. The letters require that workers who accept the transfer report for work as early as Monday.


Local union leaders said Tuesday the transfers are good news for the workers and potentially bad news for the community.


"People are looking for work," said John Dohner Jr., United Auto Workers Local 95 shop chairman at GM. "But it's possible it could take another couple hundred people out of our tax base, out of our school systems."


The Janesville plant stopped building sport-utility vehicles in December and medium-duty Isuzu trucks in April. The local plant recently lost a three-plant bidding contest for production of a small car that GM plans to build in the United States.


The Fairfax plant and its 2,200 hourly workers build the Chevy Malibu. The automaker's plant in Orion, Mich., which won the small-car work, is now building Malibus, and GM is expected to consolidate all Malibu production at Fairfax.


The Kansas plant also produces the Buick LaCrosse.


GM spokeswoman Susan Garavaglia said the Fairfax plant needs to fill several hundred production jobs. GM offered the transfers to dislocated workers around the country, and they will be filled on a seniority basis, she said.


Local 95 President Andy Richardson said his office has been busy fielding calls from local workers who requested a transfer and have the necessary seniority but haven't yet gotten the transfer letter from GM.


"Most people I've talked to are pretty happy about it," Richardson said. "The good news is that it's putting people to work, but the bad news is that it could be another 170 houses for sale."


Richardson acknowledged, however, that 170 houses on the market would be an extreme. Workers who transfer to other plants often leave their families behind and keep their homes. The workers often get together with other workers to rent housing in the new city and carpool home for three-day weekends.


Over the course of 2008 and through April, about 140 Janesville workers had transferred to other plants.


Verna Saladino, a real estate agent with Coldwell Banker Success in Janesville and president of the Rock-Green Realtors Association, said she hasn't noticed many transfer workers putting their homes on the market.


But that could change, she said, as families tire of having one member hundreds of miles away. And the number of homes on the market likely will increase given the volume of new transfers offered this week, she said.


"It's speculation on my part, but I think we'll see a time where more houses go on the market," she said.


She expects local agents will start getting calls soon from those who will transfer.


"They'll call to pick our brains: Should I put my house on the market or shouldn't I?" she said.


The Janesville School District has been trying to get a handle on GM families leaving the district for months. The loss of students from the latest transfer offers won't affect next year's budget, but it likely would affect staffing levels for the 2010-11 school year and thereafter.


GM workers who transfer will receive an immediate $6,000 signing bonus to help cover upfront expenses, Garavaglia said. When the worker arrives in the new community, he or she will receive an additional $16,000. Another $8,000 is available if the worker stays at the new location for one year.


In accepting the relocation benefit, the worker agrees to give up all seniority rights at the plant they are leaving and establish seniority at the new plant. The worker would maintain corporate seniority for vacation selection, she said.


Richardson said he doesn't know whether GM will offer more transfers to the Fairfax plant.


GM workers across the country are considering a special attrition package that pays them to leave the company. Workers must decide whether to take the attrition offer by next week.


"Whether they need more depends on how many people at Fairfax take the buyout," Richardson said. "There are also a lot of other rumors out there about other plants."


One of those, he said, is the rumor that GM could add a third shift at its plant in Fort Wayne, Ind.



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