Auto anxiety

The Baltimore Sun

Newport, Del. - For 25 years John Lewis has welded, painted and assembled cars at the vast General Motors plant in this town outside Wilmington. This month he's doing none of that. The factory is idle until Dec. 1 because of weak demand for its sporty Pontiac and Saturn roadsters, and its future seems iffy at best.

Now he's counting on Congress to approve a $25 billion rescue package for the Big Three automakers - help that once-mighty GM says it needs to ensure survival, help that Lewis says is vital to saving his job and millions of others tied to the nation's auto industry.

"I want them to give 'em 25 billion [dollars], give 'em a hundred billion, whatever," Lewis said after polishing off a hot dog from a snack shack across from the nearly empty factory. He wants to get back to work and says GM can't be allowed to fail.

"If it goes to bankruptcy, you're talking 3 or 4 million jobs. People think it's just autoworkers. It's a trickle-down effect. It goes all the way down. It's going to hurt everybody, man."

These are days of high anxiety for the 240,000 workers at GM, Ford and Chrysler and the carmakers' many pension-drawing retirees, as well as employees of a big web of suppliers.

As Congress debates the pros and cons of a possible bailout and some observers suggest that bankruptcy reorganization might benefit automakers over the long term, workers from the Delaware plant look on with a mix of fear, frustration and uncertainty - but also some hope.

"I put my heart into this plant," said David Webb, 47, a plant veteran of 24 years who checks the fit of vehicles on the assembly line. "I hope the corporation survives. I think we're going to come through it. I'm not scared."

A moment later, though, he did admit he's worried about what would happen if the rescue plan went down.

To Webb, more than his livelihood is at stake. The United States, he says, must get back to its roots as a producer: "This is becoming a hollow country. We've already lost our steel work. How many farms do you see in this area? What are we hanging our hat on in this country? Banking? That's going to pull us through?"

Not surprisingly, with the factory's 1,200 jobs potentially on the line, workers support a rescue package. But they prefer one with strict rules. Webb favors a loan as opposed to a handout. Others said no money should go to overseas operations and none to corporate executives.

"No golden parachutes," said Doug Hanscom, who has spent 32 years with GM and lives in Dundalk.

He worked at GM's Broening Highway plant until it closed in 2005 and since August 2006 has commuted to Delaware with a dozen other Baltimore residents. His job at the plant is to ferry doors, windshields and other material from the staging area to the assembly line.

Hanscom blames GM management for making "pretty foolish decisions," such as pinning the company's fortunes to gas-guzzling SUVs for much of this decade.

He also wonders why the Delaware factory has been building the Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Sky - "beautiful" roadsters that are impractical in today's market. (The plant also makes an export version, the Opel GT, which goes to Europe.) He wishes he could build a hot seller like the Chevy Malibu or Cobalt.

A GM spokesman, John Raut, said, "Of course people are concerned" at the plant. But "for the most part, people have been positive."

Meanwhile, Hanscom, 56, says leaders of the United Auto Workers union have been too willing to grant contract concessions.

He's luckier than some, though. Because of seniority, he'll still have a job when the plant cuts back from two shifts daily to one on Dec. 8, just a week after resuming production next month. And by 2012, when the plant is no longer scheduled to have a model to make, he'll have 35 years at GM, enough for an above-average pension.

That's assuming he has a pension to collect. He has heard that if GM went bust, its pension obligations might be "dumped on" the federal government, and the $3,000 a month he's banking on would be $1,000 - just enough for his house and van payments. Divorced and childless, Hanscom has only himself to worry about. Although he has a 401(k) plan, he had invested heavily in free-falling GM stock, so his balance has tumbled.

"I wish I could be more optimistic," he said. "It's just that experience has taught me I can't trust General Motors or UAW leadership to do right by me."

Lately he has pondered a post-GM reality that until recently was unfathomable: "I don't want to end up as a greeter at Wal-Mart."

One of his fellow commuters is Wanda Hopkins, a 54-year-old assembly line worker who lives in Pasadena. She is just over a year away from hitting three decades with the company. At that point she'd qualify for her pension.

But she's worried about having a job long enough to make 30 years. Already she expects to be laid off indefinitely when the Delaware plant drops to a single shift. Even if she does eventually qualify for a pension, will there still be a company to send a monthly check?

"If they go under, there's not going to be any money to supply our retirement," she said. "Then I'll be 55 years old with absolutely no job and no retirement benefits."

Another scenario, one only a bit more palatable, would be for a weakened GM to slash retirement benefits so it could remain solvent.

Hopkins knows some Americans have scant sympathy for UAW members, who have enjoyed generous contracts over the years. Hourly workers with her length of service make over $58,000 a year.

Benefits are good. For a year after the Broening Highway plant shut its doors, Hopkins was in the "job bank." That meant she got paid even though she had no job to do. In her case, she used the time to volunteer in Pasadena.

Now, despite being laid off all of November, she and her co-workers in Delaware still get 85 percent of their usual wages thanks to GM payments that supplement unemployment benefits.

But Hopkins makes no apologies for her income or anything else. "Believe you me," she said, "I earn every dime of it, humping on that assembly line every night." Among her duties is hooking up brake lines. She had to quit welding because of persistent nosebleeds.

"I go to work hurting every day," she said. "People don't understand the whole scenario. They don't go in that plant and see why I'm making that money."

John Breznitsky retired from the Delaware plant in 1990 after 38 years of hanging doors, spot welding, metal finishing and inspecting cars as they moved down the assembly line.

Back in the 1950s, he said, he walked picket lines numerous times to fight for better conditions and pay. He and his wife, Mary, raised four children on his wages and enjoyed a comfortable life.

Now 82, Breznitsky stood inside Tom's Barber Shop, where he cuts hair part time, and confided that he lies awake at night worrying about the loss of his pension.

"I've got a wife that has Alzheimer's disease, and I need all the help I can get," he said, his voice dropping to a whisper and his eyes dampening behind his glasses.

"I need anything I can squeeze out of them," he said. As for GM's financial straits, "I never thought that was going to happen."

IN THE REGION

General Motors makes autos in Newport, Del., and transmissions in White Marsh. Here is a company overview of the plants:

* Wilmington Assembly: Opened in 1947, produces the Pontiac Solstice, Saturn Sky and Opel GT. It employs about 1,200 workers.

* GMPT Baltimore Transmission: Opened in 2000, produces transmissions for the GM Powertrain division. It employs 239 hourly and 61 salaried workers.

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