Idle van makers simply hang on, wait for callback

Dan Rodricks

September 02, 1992|By Dan Rodricks

"No one has been immune from the extraordinary event which affected our lives and the way in which we do business."

-- Robert C. Stempel, General Motors Corp. chairman, Feb. 24, 1992

Earl Haines has had his fill of extraordinary events. "Hey, listen, it's an old story," he says in the tired, resigned voice of a guy who is surprised by next to nothing. "This has been going on since 1975. . . . Now, I just take things as they come."

And what comes next isn't pretty. In fact, it diminishes this week's layoff of 2,800 workers at GM's minivan plant on Broening Highway -- forced by a strike at a GM parts plant in Ohio -- to the stature of economic speed bump.

Across the continent, GM plans to eliminate nearly 75,000 more jobs and close 21 more plants in the next three years. And those moves will follow two decades of Earth-rumbling changes that knocked American autoworkers off their feet -- some permanently, some temporarily.

The invasion of Japanese automobiles and trucks, the end of the big car, the advent of savvy consumerism, layoffs, recessions, plant closings, strikes, the loss of jobs, the decline of unionism, corporate failure -- GM lost $4.5 billion last year, the most in American corporate history -- all of that created a great blue-collar diaspora of former autoworkers and autoworkers in limbo.

The latter group is composed of laid-off career autoworkers, in or approaching middle age, many of whom still have families to feed and educate. They all want a decent pension at the end of a long working life, and they are just a few years away from that achievement.

So they keep hoping for jobs in the GM manufacturing network.

They've been laid off several times, and some of the plants in which they once assembled Buicks, Chevys and Oldsmobiles have been torn down. They live off generous unemployment benefits secured by their unions and, in some cases, the incomes of their spouses. They wait for the day a letter arrives with an invitation to take a job in a new GM plant. They want to get their time toward 30 years and a nice pension.

They're clinging to some of the last really good manufacturing jobs left.

Haines has 22 years with GM. Started in California, at the Southgate plant. When that plant closed, Haines took a job at a GM plant in Kansas. He was laid off there in 1990.

This past spring, two years after the layoff, GM invited Haines to take a job at the successful minivan plant on Broening Highway. So, he and his wife packed their bags and rented an apartment in Perry Hall.

When he showed up for work Monday, GM sent him home.

The same thing happened to 49 other autoworkers who had come to Maryland from Kansas in the past month. Half of them started work here Aug. 10. Monday was to have been the first day for the rest. More laid-off workers are due to arrive in the coming weeks. GM invited a total of 110 workers from the Kansas City plant to take jobs at Broening Highway. When there's a demand for workers at a GM plant anywhere, the company calls back laid-off workers instead of hiring from the street.

"We have workers from 13 states now," says Rodney Trump, president of United Auto Workers Local 239, speaking of Broening Highway.

Isaiah Broxton is 51 years old. He's one of the modern manufacturing nomads.

The Broening Highway plant represents his third stop in the GM network. He assembled big Buicks and Oldsmobiles back in the good old days of Southgate. When that plant closed, he waited two years and got a job in Kansas. He held that job for six years, getting a layoff notice in 1989. He went fishing a lot, lived off his benefits and his wife's salary -- she worked for the state of Kansas -- until GM in Baltimore summoned him to a new job this past spring.

"It doesn't bother me," Broxton says about moving. "I look at it as an adventure, as a way to meet new people."

He might not be so content had his union not gained generous unemployment benefits for him and other workers with considerable seniority. For the first two years after a layoff, senior workers get about 80 percent of their normal weekly take-home pay, according to Trump. After that, they get about 50 percent of their last weekly net. When GM offers them a job, they usually have to take it -- or face losing their benefits, and all the time accrued toward their pensions.

Another GM worker, Doris Homfeld, wasn't so keen about moving to Baltimore, having already made moves in California twice and to Kansas City once.

"You have to do it for the work," Homfeld says. "But you leave your family behind. All the kids are in California, and you know, you can't call them all the time. It costs money to fly back to see them, too. You drift apart. The kids learn to survive on their own, without you. But it's not just me. Everybody goes through the same thing."

Homfeld, Broxton and Haines might take this week's layoff in stride. It probably will be just a temporary delay in their return to work.

But then there's the future, and the huge scale-down already announced by GM. There's no guarantee that, even with their seniority, they will survive the next three years of cutbacks and plant closings.

And if that should happen, what do they do then? Where do they go from here?

While laid off in Kansas, Homfeld, who started with GM 20 years go, looked for another job outside auto manufacturing. "They all paid $4.50 an hour," she said. "There was one job -- I don't remember what now -- that paid $6.50 an hour and you needed two years' experience. How can you live on that?"

Better, then, to hold on and wait, to hope for another shot at some of the last really good manufacturing jobs left in the United States.

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