FLINT, Mich. — It's becoming almost routine. Shortly before a General Motors factory closes, one of the last cars off the line is given away to a plant worker in a drawing.
At Flint Body, the fourth of 16 GM plants scheduled to be closed by 1990, the drawing was Tuesday. Today, the 3,100 workers will trudge home for the last time.
The prize, a two-door Buick Regal Grand National worth $22,000, will be the last car worked on at a plant in Pontiac, 30 miles away, where Flint Body's hand-welded shells have been married to chassis and bumpers. That 1,800-worker assembly plant also closes today.
The drawings are part of a delicate art GM is learning more about each time it closes one of its assembly, metal-stamping or parts plants.
Many of those lessons have been gathered during the five years that company managers have spent working on closing Flint Body, which was opened by GM founder William Durant in 1923 as an independent venture and for decades was called Fisher Body.
"I've learned a lot about this plant closing, about how to treat people," said Robert Hameister, plant manager. "I think we've all learned a lot. A lot of people have learned about how to control your own life."
The hope is that workers will pay close attention to the quality of the last cars, since the drawing winner will own one.
In its final quality audit, the plant received the highest marks in its history. "It shows that the people are still going to go out with pride," said Al Yelle, bargaining chairman of United Auto Workers union Local 581, at Flint Body.
Hameister said he hopes that his workers are ready to train for new jobs or find non-GM work or open their own businesses.
"They've worked very hard to handle this with a degree of professionalism, to help themselves rather than leave it to destiny," Hameister said.
Workers have also helped each other. Ten of the plant's hourly employees served as peer counselors, helping co-workers grapple with the changes.
"It's almost like death counseling . . . from the standpoint of the ability to help one another and to lean on one another," Hameister said.
The shock of joblessness was eased a bit last week when Flint Body's workers learned each would be offered "buyout" sums under the GM-UAW contract. The payments range from $12,000 to $65,000, depending on years with the company.
Accepting the buyout offer ends a worker's right to be recalled should a GM job open up.
The buyouts are most important to workers with less than 10 years' seniority, who most likely will not work for GM again and now will be eligible for up to $30,000, said Michael Halsey, a union official with 10 1/2 years at the plant.
Yelle said the benefits will somewhat reduce the impact of the shutdown on Flint, 65 miles northwest of Detroit.
In the town where GM and the UAW were born and where GM is the primary employer, the plant closing will add slightly more than 2,000 to Genesee County unemployment rolls, which in October stood at 24,700, or 12.2%, including 8,900 laid-off GM workers.
The Flint Body workers also are protected by various benefits, including tuition assistance, early retirement benefits and unemployment benefits, which for senior workers can last until they retire or are recalled by GM.
Of the 3,100 Flint Body workers, about a third have chosen to retire or take the buyout package. About 290 are scheduled to transfer to Flint's Buick City, a $350-million, high-tech body-and-assembly complex, and 1,800 will go into an area hiring pool to wait for other GM jobs, UAW spokesman Reg McGhee said.
Although hoping for another GM job, many plan to go through retraining programs for other work.
"I've got to find out what's out there. Can they give me the same amount of money, the same amount of benefits that this place has given me and my family the past 16 years?" said Maynard Jarrett, 40, a weld repairer.