GM steering Flint's future Strike: Residents fear General Motors Corp. is about to drive its plants out of the already economically depressed city.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

FLINT, Mich. -- From the view on the streets, you'd never know there was such a thing as, say, a Honda Accord or a Toyota Camry. Here, they drive not just American, but local.

It seems everyone who lives here has either built a spark plug or welded an engine cradle -- or is the spouse or child or sibling of someone who has -- of the Chevys, Buicks and other local products that ply the roadways in this city 65 miles north of Detroit.

"We don't make lemons, so we believe in buying our own," said Russ Brown, a longtime auto worker who tools around in his new Chevrolet Astro van, which rolled off the General Motors assembly plant on Broening Highway in Baltimore a couple of months ago and ended up here, the birthplace of both the company and the union of the workers who created it.

Today, however, as Brown and his fellow United Auto Workers continue a 12-day-old and increasingly crippling strike against GM, it is their shared hometown that seems certain to lose, regardless of its outcome.

The strike is straining what is an already depressed city, memorably portrayed in "Roger & Me," a 1989 documentary about the devastating effects GM's cutbacks have had in the city. The parking lots of restaurants and bars that normally cater to thousands of workers are noticeably sparse. One church bookkeeper said its Sunday donations this week were down by about 100 envelopes. Companies that make parts for GM are starting to lay off their own workers.

"It trickles down," said Sandra Simmons, a bank teller who has heard there will be layoffs at her company if the strike goes on much longer. "We don't have any checks to cash. No one's trying to finance anything because they don't know if they'll be able to make the payments."

Simmons spent a recent evening after her son's school basketball game visiting with parents and school employees. The four of them, chatting in the parking lot of Eisenhower Elementary School, are perhaps a microcosm of the city as a whole: One is a GM worker (and the son and the brother of GM workers) idled by the strike; another is a former GM worker; and two don't work there but know many who do. GM accounts for about 65 percent of the local economy.

"You can't depend on GM these days," said Gregory Hamilton, the idled GM employee and the father of four. "I don't want GM for my kids. I'm in there to make all the money I can get from them, and that's it."

One plant to close in '99

GM has already announced it will close the Buick City plant next year. Hamilton's father put in his 30 years there and retired, but died before he could fully enjoy the fruits of his labor. Although Gregory Hamilton works hard at GM and puts in overtime that netted him as much as $70,000 one year, he discouraged his oldest child from taking a job there.

GM paychecks have bought houses in the suburbs for its workers and college educations for those workers' children. While Flint itself is a ghost of its former vibrant self, some of the suburbs that ring it boast the Borders bookstores and Outback steakhouses that have come to define middle-class well-being.

If Flint is the ultimate company town, GM perhaps is the ultimate family company: So many families here are total GM families. In fact, many don't even actually say they work at GM because that would state the obvious; rather, they use the shorthand of the various plant names. A.C. for the Delphi East spark plug facility, for example, or V-8 for the engine facility.

'UAW' family

Brian Kagen's is a GM family, or, as he prefers to call it, a UAW family.

Kagen, a worker at a GM plant shut down by the strike, joined his brother Vic earlier this week to picket at the Flint Metal Center, the facility whose workers walked off the job on June 5 and triggered a second strike Friday at another Flint facility, Delphi East, as well as the shutdown of plants elsewhere in North America. Some 9,200 workers are on strike in Flint, and a total of 71,700 workers nationwide are idled as a result.

"When you grow up here, that's what you do -- when you got out of high school, you tried to get into GM," said Kagen, one of five brothers who have worked at GM plants. Kagen went through a three-year layoff from GM in the early '80s and fears, like many union workers, that GM is slowly pulling out of the city that gave it life.

With so many entwined with GM, the strike has made for uneasy times, even within families.

"It's not a comfortable situation," said Ted Martin, a 39-year veteran of GM who, as a salaried management worker at the metal-stamping plan, continues to go to work and draw paychecks. "It affects the whole community. A lot of people will never recover from these strikes."

Martin's wife is an hourly worker at the plant and thus on strike. He has relatives also at the striking Delphi plant. "It's kind of a funny situation," Martin said, but a manageable one. His concern is for the future of the only company he has ever worked for.

"Maybe they're not going to invest in a city that creates a lot of strife," said Martin, echoing the tenor of many who believe the strikers will only serve to drive GM out of Flint.

'Too little too late'

Others, though, say GM is driving itself out of Flint. GM employed nearly 80,000 workers in Flint in the late 1960s, but plant closings and cutbacks have reduced that to 33,000 today. Some believe the number will continue to shrink in the future as GM continues to outsource more work and increase efficiency and profits.

"The strike is too little too late," said Michael Moore, the film director who left Flint for New York after the success of "Roger & Me." "People finally woke up and said, 'Oh, GM's leaving.' "

Moore is still persona non grata around town, even among the workers whose cause he was trying to promote. Some feel he presented only the negative side or made fun of them -- the scenes involving the woman who sold bunnies for "pets or meat" particularly rankle.

Moore, whose father worked at the A.C. plant, said he believes this strike may have larger implications, beyond GM.

"This is a watershed moment," he said. "Corporations are making record profits. CEOs are making record bonuses. Workers are saying, 'Where's my slice of the pie? Where's the equity here?' "

Lagging productivity

GM, which is losing an estimated $40 million a day as the strike continues, has argued that it needs to continue to improve the efficiency and productivity of its operation. Even with previous job eliminations, GM's productivity still lags behind competitors like Ford.

To UAW workers and their supporters, that can only mean one thing: further cutbacks.

Mike Jabero, whose business at his convenience store across the street from the Metal Center rises and falls with the fortunes of those workers, believes GM owes Flint. His store is so dependent on the workers that when their plants are shut down for two weeks in the summer as GM switches model years, he follows suit.

"GM made its money here in Flint. They at least should give back and keep their plants here even if they have to close elsewhere," said Jabero, who has already laid off two of his four employees now that his customers are off the job.

He stares glumly at the financing papers for the GM truck that he bought a month ago, not knowing that the workers who made it and on whom he depends would soon be idled.

Uncertain future

The story of GM and the UAW is a complicated one, befitting a city where the Chevrolet-Buick Highway intersects with UAW Freeway. It's a relationship that is full of both antagonism and pride, with a history as rich as the future seems uncertain.

"My father worked there 42 years and cried the day he retired," said Father John Czajkowski, pastor of St. John Catholic Church in suburban Davison. "He loved it there. The people who worked there in the '50s and '60s just loved their workplace."

Father Czajkowski said he believes the relationship between management and laborers has deteriorated since his father's day. "I remember growing up, one of the heroes of the work force was this manager who used to shake the hand of every one of his employees and greet them by their first names when he saw you on the street," he said. "I think that touch has been lost today."

Indeed, Martin, the supervisor of 63 employees at the Metal Center, said he resists friendships with his underlings, even those he went to school with. "My policy is I'm not really friends with them. I'm their supervisor," he said. "We have a working relationship, that's it."

For both GM and the UAW, history remains a part of the present. GM will celebrate its 90th birthday this September. The UAW, meanwhile, last year celebrated the 60th anniversary of the sit-down strike that on Feb. 11, 1937, led GM to recognize the UAW as its workers' representative for the first time. Workers still get a catch in their voice when they talk about the "sit-downers."

Rita L. Jackson began working at the Metal Center in 1972, moving two years ago into a job at UAW Local 569, the only fTC remaining chapter that dates back to the sit-downers.

"My grandfather was in that sit-down. My father was with Local 599," said Jackson, the mother of three, none of whom have continued the family line to GM. "Flint is my home. We hate seeing this community go down."

Pub Date: 6/17/98

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