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In Michigan's auto belt, it's nail-biting time

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"If these companies go out of business, we'll lose a lot of the important jobs that give people a decent living and allow them to go to work with a smile on their face," says Warren Mayor James Fouts, whose city is home to the General Motors tech center, a GM powertrain plant, and two Chrysler plants, along with dozens of suppliers to the auto industry. "It's the little people who are going to be paying for this."

Tough economic times are hardly new to Michigan. The state has long been stuck in recession, has one of the highest foreclosure rates in the nation, and currently has an unemployment rate above 9 percent. But auto workers, even those who were around to see the previous tough times for the industry in the 1980s, say this is worse than previous downturns. And it's the first time they've seriously questioned if one of the Big Three might not make it.

Many wonder if the model they always counted on – where employment at an auto company and membership in the United Auto Workers Union was a ticket to a middle-class lifestyle and a secure future and retirement – is finally coming to an end.

"In the 31 years I've put in, this is the worst I've seen," says Ms. Kelly-Smith, a third-generation GM worker who retired a year ago, along with her husband. Together, the two earn about $70,000 from their pension, and Kelly-Smith isn't sure what she'll do if that disappears. Her husband recently had a stroke, and their home isn't yet paid off.

"I'd have to go back on the job market and compete with the young folks," she says. "I thought I was secure if I stayed there, and did a decent job, and kept my health – that when I did retire that's when the good years would begin…. It's so frightening to think that all the time you've put in can just be washed away."

Right now, GM is in the worst shape of the three automakers and appears unlikely to make it to January without help. Ford is the most likely to make it on its own, while Chrysler is the hardest to gauge, since it is owned largely by Cerberus, a private-equity firm, says Don Grimes, an economist at the University of Michigan.

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