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Once Again, City Finds It's Focal Point of Labor Strife

Economy: Flint, Mich., has long been home to union militancy. Some fear current strikes will curb investment.

June 12, 1998|DONALD W. NAUSS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

FLINT, Mich. — Visitors to United Auto Workers Union Local 659 are warned in no uncertain terms that foreign cars are "absolutely prohibited" in the parking lot.

A sign fronting the union hall proclaims that this is "home of the 1937 sitdowners," a proud monument to workers who occupied General Motors plants for 44 days until the company recognized the UAW for the first time.

Welcome to Flint, the quintessential company town that is stuck in a time warp. While much of the world moves forward, this hard-luck center of union might and militancy again finds itself stuck on the picket line.

This week two UAW strikes that threaten to shut down GM's operations nationwide have placed Flint, a city of 160,000 mostly blue-collar residents, at ground zero in what is shaping up to be an epic labor battle.

While GM and the UAW have much at risk, Flint--not long ago portrayed as a down-and-out poster child for the Rust Belt--itself could again become the biggest victim regardless of the outcome.

"There is an imminent danger that these strikes could cause further disinvestment," said William Donohue, head of the Genesee Area Focus Council, a business group trying to spur investment in the city.

The UAW is striking GM in disputes over work rules, factory conditions and job security. About 3,400 workers at a stamping plant walked out a week ago. They were joined Thursday by 5,800 workers at a major parts factory across town.

The disputes threaten to bring all of GM's North American operations to a halt by the end of next week, costing the industrial giant up to $300 million a week in lost profit as well as crucial market share. The walkouts have already closed eight assembly plants and partially shuttered 16 parts plants and other facilities, idling nearly 25,000 workers across the country.

The strikes come as the nation's economy is humming and corporate profits are rolling along. But many auto workers in Flint feel left out of the party. They bitterly say that their high-pay jobs are at risk even as Big Three executives pocket multimillion-dollar bonuses and move work abroad or to nonunion firms.

Long, Expensive Walkout Looms

Amid this atmosphere of fear and distrust, the expectation is increasing that the strikes could be long and costly.

"If we have to stand out here until hell freezes over, we'll do that," said Clayton Crewes, a 60-year-old die setter as he picketed in a light drizzle on Wednesday.

Labor strife is nothing new to Flint, and many hard-line union members here display a rampant xenophobia and conspiratorial suspicion of corporate bigwigs and their Wall Street cronies.

"There are age-old animosities being played out here," said David Cole, director of the University of Michigan's auto study office. "But every strike like this drives another stake in Flint's heart."

Flint, 65 miles north of Detroit, has struggled with the devastating effects of plant closings and downsizing for two decades. In the 1980s, it was so ravaged by unemployment, crime and business failures that it became a heart-wrenching symbol of America's failed manufacturing sector.

Despite losing nearly 50,000 high-paying auto jobs in the last 20 years, Flint is still home to 33,000 GM workers, the largest concentration of hourly GM employees anywhere in the world.

Flint is a tightknit community where it is not uncommon for three generations of families to have toiled in the same Buick or Chevrolet plant. So pervasive is GM's influence that it still accounts for 65% of the local economy.

Announced plant closings and further downsizing could cut that to 35% in five years, according to Genesee County officials. Local economic officials say GM could close half its 24 plants here and cut 11,000 jobs in the next few years. Already slated for closure is the 22-square-block Buick City assembly complex.

There is a growing frustration and animosity in Flint regarding its corporate benefactor. Many union members say the auto giant is slowly abandoning the town and workers in a global search for the almighty dollar.

"GM grew to be the highly profitable corporation it is based on the work of people in communities like Flint," said UAW Vice President Richard Shoemaker. "GM has a responsibility to the workers and community here."

Liberal Light for Social Change

Flint is the birthplace of GM, whose founder, William C. Durant, moved Buick here in 1904. Massive factories sprang up all over the city. When the Depression hit, layoffs hit hard and assembly lines were speeded up. The social upheaval led to union organizing and the famed sit-down strikes.

In the years that followed, the UAW became a liberal light for social change, negotiating contracts with higher wages and benefits. The union's advances helped create an affluent middle class, which fed an economic boom nationally in the 1950s and '60s. Flint was a model city supported by the wealth of its auto barons.

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