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Fear, frayed nerves in a GM town

Shock waves from D.C. hit workers at a transmission plant and the officials of the city and township in Michigan that count on the auto industry. But they're used to bad news.

March 31, 2009|P.J. Huffstutter and Ralph Vartabedian

YPSILANTI TOWNSHIP, MICH., AND LOS ANGELES — From the sprawling General Motors transmission plant in Ypsilanti Township, Dave Tatman said that when he heard the bad news about his company and the departure Monday of its chief executive, Rick Wagoner, it came "like a hammer blow to the stomach."

Tatman has been a General Motors man all his life. When he got out of college, he dreamed about one day being a plant manager for GM.

Now, he works in this township west of Detroit, running GM's Willow Run Powertrain plant, where GM has built transmissions for more than 50 years.

In this township of 52,000 people, already battered for 20 years by economic turmoil, the high-stakes political battle that played out Monday in Washington only further frayed the nerves of blue- and white-collar workers who once envisioned a lifetime with GM.

Sharon Jean, a 51-year-old electrician at the Willow Run plant, said her hope now is just to hold on to her job for a few more years.

"I'm too young to retire," Jean said. "My daughter is in high school, and my son just left the military."

Workers say it has been hard to bear the scorn heaped on them by outsiders, who like to blame the company, or the union, or the product, or the executives for everything that has gone wrong.

Tatman, like others, thinks it's unfair, particular to his old boss. "Rick Wagoner is one of the brightest people I know," Tatman said Monday. "I talked to 250 people today, and not a single one had a bad word to say about him."

Now that President Obama has ousted Wagoner, Tatman has little choice but to digest the shock and keep moving, as he has so many times over his long career with GM. He has worked at GM plants all over the U.S. and the world but returned to Ypsilanti about six months ago.

At one time, the massive Willow Run plant employed 12,000 workers. The cutbacks have come relentlessly in recent years. Today, it is down to just below 1,700 and is headed to perhaps 1,000 by this summer.

"Things started going to gunny bags in the early 1980s," Tatman said. "It has been a long rough road since then."

The downward spiral has taken the community with it. "It is very, very important to our community that GM survives," said Brenda Stumbo, supervisor of Ypsilanti Township, which is adjacent to the city of Ypsilanti. "We need them."

Paul Schreiber, mayor of Ypsilanti, said the city has been hit hard by the cutbacks at the Willow Run plant and the closure of an automotive components plant formerly owned by Visteon Corp.

Property taxes are dropping, and foreclosures are rising. Schreiber hopes the city can become a "town of knowledge, culture and entertainment," based on the local college, Eastern Michigan University.

That would be a big leap from its past.

The plant was built by Henry Ford and used to manufacture B-24 bombers during World War II. A mass influx of Southerners to work at the plant gave the industrial city the nickname Ypsitucky. In fact, it was named after 19th-century Greek war hero Demetrius Ypsilantis.

After the war, Kaiser-Frazer Corp. built cars there but stopped in the early 1950s, and GM took over the sprawling plant that covers more than 5 million square feet -- once the largest single factory in the world. Today, many corners of the plant are darkened and machinery is in storage.

"It is hard, and it is scary," said Don Skidmore, president of Local 735, which represents hourly workers at Willow Run. "We have guys crying. We have guys sitting outside the plant gates, having panic attacks whether to take early retirement.

"Some days, I feel more like a counselor than a union president," he added.

Skidmore said the events of recent days have left him "a little disappointed in President Obama, and I'm a true blue Democrat."

"I think Rick Wagoner was worth $1 a year," Skidmore said, referring to Wagoner's pledge to take only $1 in annual salary after he asked for a federal bailout. "In the financial sector, they haven't asked anybody to step down."

Skidmore's deepest wrath is reserved for critics who blame the unions for GM's problems.

"I make $28 an hour, which sounds good, but it is hard to feed a family, put a kid through college or even buy your own product," he said. "I invite anybody to come and work on an assembly line and tell us we are overpaid."

The plant is phasing out production of its four-speed transmission but ramping up production of six-speed transmissions, which Tatman calls "one of the great transmissions of the future."

Several years ago, GM spent $500 million to refurbish the plant to build six-speed transmissions.

"There isn't a lot we can control about the market conditions or the capital markets or all the other stuff, but what we can control is to build high-quality transmissions every day," he said. "Our people, you can only imagine the uncertainty they face. You could let it rule your life, but we make a different choice. We work hard to do what is right."

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p.j.huffstutter@latimes.com

ralph.vartabedian@latimes.com

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