‘We’re always on the brink’

U.S. auto workers touchy about media coverage of industry bailout

To offend a U.S. auto worker just ask him what he thinks of the U.S. government’s industry bailout. “It’s not a bailout. It’s a loan. That’s what pisses us off” says one worker over beer at Steve’s Back Side Tavern after giving his name as Otis. The small bar down the street from a General Motors plant in Wilmington Delaware has drawn a few workers at the end of a Friday shift.

He has reason to be touchy this afternoon. At 2:37 p.m. — shift’s end — he had lost his job after 23 years with GM. In the face of weakened demand for American cars management decided that the Wilmington assembly will only run a single shift.

Otis and five of his co-workers depart without giving their surnames leaving the bar vacant apart from a couple of old-timers and a technician repairing the jukebox. The five were sick of the media and feared being branded as “disgruntled” autoworkers.

With a workforce drawn from four states — New Jersey Philadelphia Virginia and Delaware — Steve’s is one of the few places to find autoworkers congregating after work. Most go straight to a long commute home. After the closure of auto plants in neighbouring states GM’s Wilmington facility became one of the last remaining automobile factories in America’s northeast. That facility itself now seems in jeopardy having shed two shifts and hundreds of jobs.

This experience is one being lived across North America as the Big Three grapple with sagging sales and a hesitant U.S. Congress. Tightened credit has left car buyers unable to secure loans. In the factory’s management offices talk of the crisis dominates conversation.

The plant floor has a church-like serenity as the remaining workers soldier on. Chains driving machinery conveyors click overhead. Automated trolleys ferry parts through “birdcage lane” so named because of the unique shape the body panels make when stacked against each other. The plant has built almost nine million cars since its opening in 1947 its cavernous interior witness to a host of manufacturing innovations.

Today much of the floor is closed and fenced off. In the past lack of space might have been an inconvenience as the factory operated at capacity but with only one shift remaining space is ample. Wilmington builds Pontiac’s Solstice a two-seater roadster at a rate of about 60 a day. In the late 1970s worker John Shaw says he and his colleagues were building 72 Chevettes every hour.

GM’s main problem he says is image. He tells a story of meeting a friend while driving in his new Malibu. After his friend pored over the car’s instrument panel and styling he was impressed yet surprised. So what’s the problem with GM? his friend asked.

“Perception!” Shaw says. “You could slap a foreign emblem on this car and no one would be able to tell the difference” he concludes before returning to his work assembling instrument panels.

Workers in Wilmington take pride in quality. Lloyd Martin an assembly worker raised in Delaware’s hunting and fishing country points out an array of warning lights that indicate if a single bolt hasn’t been completely torqued. His work is triple-checked before the cars are shipped out to showrooms. Somehow lawmakers have not assimilated his pride in American-built cars.

From top to bottom employees of the Wilmington plant feel that Congress has let them down. Plant manager Bob Dolan laments Congress’s reluctance to help automakers. His white hair and beard accent his fatherly demeanour and speak to a long history managing auto plants. This recession is the worst he’s seen in his more than 30 years with GM — worse than the early ’80s. “It seems to me it’s more devastating” he says. “It’s deeper.” At the plant the threat of closure looms. “We’re always on the brink.”

A hip-shooting media has not helped the situation. Joe Riccio the chairman of the plant’s UAW local has strong opinions on coverage of the issue. “I don’t want to get into specifics” he says. “You couldn’t publish the language.” After a financial sector bailout motored through Congress complaints of plush jobs have dogged workers in the auto industry. Riccio stresses that reputed $73 US per-hour wages are an exaggeration. “That’s a total myth bro. We make $28 an hour.”

“It’s almost as if there is a blue-collar bias underlying the debate” says Harley Shaiken a professor at Berkeley who specializes in the auto industry. Regionalism is also hampering GM’s efforts to garner federal assistance he continues. Hunger for jobs is pitting the South with its weaker labour protections against manufacturing’s northern heartland.

It’s a battle the heartland might lose. No bailout can prevent bankruptcy according to Edward Altman a New York University professor who testified before Congress in December. A $15 billion loan would merely be a “Band-Aid” “They’re only putting off the inevitable” he says.

However bankruptcy need not be dire. It offers companies a chance to restructure while being protected from creditors a fact most analysts ignore. “In bankruptcy they have a lot more time to work out the restructuring plan. It’s easier to get things done in bankruptcy than out” he says.

Then why isn’t management pushing for it? “First of all management would be ousted in bankruptcy. You don’t expect them to recommend something that means they’re out of their job.”

Richard Vanderford is an Albertan who recently graduated from New York University’s Masters in Journalism program. He has published stories in Toronto’s Sharp magazine Maisonneuve and the New York Daily News.