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Fewer and fewer GM workers remain in Janesville

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JAMES P. LEUTE
October 23, 2009
— General Motors, the once dominant employer in Janesville, has whittled its local workforce down to about 575 people through buyouts, retirements and transfers to other plants.

The local plant that employed 7,100 people in the late 1970s ended sport-utility vehicle production last December and its medium-duty line in April.


That resulted in the layoff of more than 1,200 local GM workers, as well as hundreds of layoffs at supplier companies. More than 200 GM workers signed up for an attrition program this summer that included buyouts and early retirements.


In the last six months, another 359 Janesville workers have voluntarily transferred to other GM plants.


The majority—185—transferred to GM's plant in Fairfax, Kan., producer of the Buick LaCrosse, Chevrolet Malibu and Saturn Aura.


Another 90 employees transferred to the Fort Wayne, Ind., plant that makes Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra pickup trucks.


Eighty-four are working in Arlington, Texas, where GM exclusively builds the full-size SUVs that were jointly produced until December in Janesville.


Those workers who have transferred are getting rave reviews at their new plants, said John C. Dohner, who has returned to a leadership role at United Auto Workers Local 95 in Janesville.


"Those other locals are calling back to us, and they can't say enough about the quality of work or the work ethic that our people have brought to their plants," said Dohner, who served as Local 95 president from 1984 to 1987.


"Our people really got the short end of the stick from Detroit."


Dohner, recently elected as Local 95's vice president, stepped into the leadership role this week when former President Andy Richardson started work at the Fort Wayne plant. Dohner's son, John Dohner Jr., had been Local 95's shop chairman at GM before he transferred to Fort Wayne.


Dohner said those workers who have transferred have done so voluntarily. He suggests that workers who are thinking about staying with the automaker put their name in for a voluntary transfer.


That's because there is a clause in the UAW-GM contract that allows "forced transfers." GM could offer workers on unemployment and collecting negotiated Supplemental Unemployment Benefits a transfer to a specific plant. If the employee refuses the transfer, he or she likely would be terminated.


"We haven't had any forced transfers to date, and we haven't heard of any that are expected, but I would suggest getting your name in for a voluntary transfer," Dohner said. "That's just my opinion, though."


A voluntary transfer is preferable because employees can designate the plant or plants acceptable to them.


Fairfax and Fort Wayne have been popular destinations for local workers because those plants recently switched to four-day workweeks. Many local transfers are spending the week in those cities—both within reasonable driving distance—and coming home on weekends.


The possibility exists that the Kansas and Indiana plants could need even more workers. GM announced earlier this year that it will add third-shift production at the two plants in January and April, respectively.


GM also is adding a third shift at its Lansing Delta Township plant, which will start building the Chevy Traverse in April.


The GM plant in Arlington has scheduled overtime for the rest of the year to increase its production of full-size SUVs, and there's talk of a possible third shift there.


A third shift, however, can carry both positive and negatives. In the short term, it puts more people back to work. In the long term, it can put even more workers in disarray if the added production can't be sustained.


"We just don't know," Dohner said. "It's hard to tell what's happening with the U.S. auto market."



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