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Norwood, Ohio, Girds for a Grim Life Without GM

November 16, 1986|ALAN GOLDSTEIN | Times Staff Writer

NORWOOD, Ohio — On a recent steel-gray day in a corner of the Crystal Saloon, next to the General Motors factory here, two plant workers with guitars began strumming a tune. Soon most of the bar patrons were singing along.

"Take this job and shove it," they bellowed in unison. "I ain't working here no more." In fact, the nation's largest auto maker is not leaving the 4,300 workers here with much choice in the matter. The Norwood plant is one of 11 facilities that GM is closing in Ohio, Michigan, Missouri and Illinois, and the angst apparent in the blue-collar neighborhoods of Norwood--in the restaurants and hardware stores, churches and schools--is being felt all over the Midwest.

"People are wondering where they'll go," said Betty Pastori, village clerk for Willow Springs, Ill., where a body panel plant is scheduled to be phased out. Pastori said her son-in-law, who had just begun building a new home, works at the facility.

"There's no light at the end of the tunnel anymore," said Stan Marshall, regional director for the United Auto Workers in Flint, Mich. GM plans to close two assembly and body plants in the area, putting 4,500 out of work there.

GM announced the closures 10 days ago, saying they were a result of over-capacity. In all, the move would put 29,000 people out of work by 1989. It was this decision that saved, for at least a few years, Norwood's rival plant in Van Nuys, which also makes Chevrolet Camaros and Pontiac Firebirds.

The news has been devastating for Norwood, an industrial enclave of 26,000 in the middle of Cincinnati, located five miles north of its downtown.

GM is by far the largest employer in Norwood. About 1,000 of the factory's workers live in town. Through earnings and property taxes, the plant provides one-third of the city's operating budget, and a fifth of the money for its schools.

In Miss Smith's fourth-grade class at the Norwood Baptist Christian School, one student could barely restrain his sentiments during a discussion.

"It's gonna be a ghost town," shouted Greg Melton, 9, without raising his hand. Greg said his father has worked for GM for 23 years. Local retailers are also worried for Norwood and for their businesses. J. Robert Schmank, who owns Miller Bros. Wallpaper & Paint, a Norwood-based chain with seven outlets in Ohio, said stores that sell anything but essential items will be hurt.

"When a loaf of bread goes up against a gallon of paint, bread always wins," Schmank said.

Some here have quietly resigned themselves to the fate and are looking ahead to change, either by hoping for a new occupant for the building or simply adapting to life without GM. Others have been angry, often bad-mouthing GM for deserting them after years of service. They deny that the plant will close, even though GM said its decision is final.

"This whole thing's about concessions, nothing else," said Ken Geiger, 29, talking about the planned closure at Crystal's. "They're threatening to close us so we'll open up the local bargaining agreement and cut out the things we've earned," he said. Geiger, who has been with GM for 10 years, works in the chassis department.

"Damn GM for playing these games with us," said Eugene Couch, 42, who puts the handles on the hatches of the cars in the hard-trim department. "One minute we're good boys, then we're bad. Who knows what they're pulling?"

Such skepticism notwithstanding, most everyone was shocked by the news, which was kept relatively secret until workers were told by their plant manager at a solemn early-morning meeting in the plant, three hours before a news conference in Detroit.

"There's usually guys shouting and stuff at meetings but nobody said a word," said Robert Gentry, 38, who sands and fixes nicks and scratches in cars before they go to the paint shop. "It just came out of the blue."

Most had expected Van Nuys to get the ax, not Norwood. But GM President F. James McDonald said at the Detroit session that the 63-year-old Norwood plant will close by mid-1988 because the burnt-orange brick building, with its ornate moldings and friezes, is aging and because it is multi-storied, like others targeted for closing.

He said the plant, the second oldest in the GM system, would be difficult to renovate because it is situated in a relatively congested "landlocked" setting. Newer auto plants tend to be sprawling, single-story buildings with lots of room for expansion or modification of production systems.

The rowdy barroom scene at Crystal's followed a closed Sunday afternoon session at the Cincinnati Gardens, an ice-skating rink, where plant workers were called by company and union officials to discuss the situation.

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