GM steering Flint's future Strike: Residents fear General Motors Corp. is about to drive its plants out of the already economically depressed city.

June 17, 1998|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

FLINT, Mich. -- From the view on the streets, you'd never know there was such a thing as, say, a Honda Accord or a Toyota Camry. Here, they drive not just American, but local.

It seems everyone who lives here has either built a spark plug or welded an engine cradle -- or is the spouse or child or sibling of someone who has -- of the Chevys, Buicks and other local products that ply the roadways in this city 65 miles north of Detroit.

"We don't make lemons, so we believe in buying our own," said Russ Brown, a longtime auto worker who tools around in his new Chevrolet Astro van, which rolled off the General Motors assembly plant on Broening Highway in Baltimore a couple of months ago and ended up here, the birthplace of both the company and the union of the workers who created it.

Today, however, as Brown and his fellow United Auto Workers continue a 12-day-old and increasingly crippling strike against GM, it is their shared hometown that seems certain to lose, regardless of its outcome.

The strike is straining what is an already depressed city, memorably portrayed in "Roger & Me," a 1989 documentary about the devastating effects GM's cutbacks have had in the city. The parking lots of restaurants and bars that normally cater to thousands of workers are noticeably sparse. One church bookkeeper said its Sunday donations this week were down by about 100 envelopes. Companies that make parts for GM are starting to lay off their own workers.

"It trickles down," said Sandra Simmons, a bank teller who has heard there will be layoffs at her company if the strike goes on much longer. "We don't have any checks to cash. No one's trying to finance anything because they don't know if they'll be able to make the payments."

Simmons spent a recent evening after her son's school basketball game visiting with parents and school employees. The four of them, chatting in the parking lot of Eisenhower Elementary School, are perhaps a microcosm of the city as a whole: One is a GM worker (and the son and the brother of GM workers) idled by the strike; another is a former GM worker; and two don't work there but know many who do. GM accounts for about 65 percent of the local economy.

"You can't depend on GM these days," said Gregory Hamilton, the idled GM employee and the father of four. "I don't want GM for my kids. I'm in there to make all the money I can get from them, and that's it."

One plant to close in '99

GM has already announced it will close the Buick City plant next year. Hamilton's father put in his 30 years there and retired, but died before he could fully enjoy the fruits of his labor. Although Gregory Hamilton works hard at GM and puts in overtime that netted him as much as $70,000 one year, he discouraged his oldest child from taking a job there.

GM paychecks have bought houses in the suburbs for its workers and college educations for those workers' children. While Flint itself is a ghost of its former vibrant self, some of the suburbs that ring it boast the Borders bookstores and Outback steakhouses that have come to define middle-class well-being.

If Flint is the ultimate company town, GM perhaps is the ultimate family company: So many families here are total GM families. In fact, many don't even actually say they work at GM because that would state the obvious; rather, they use the shorthand of the various plant names. A.C. for the Delphi East spark plug facility, for example, or V-8 for the engine facility.

'UAW' family

Brian Kagen's is a GM family, or, as he prefers to call it, a UAW family.

Kagen, a worker at a GM plant shut down by the strike, joined his brother Vic earlier this week to picket at the Flint Metal Center, the facility whose workers walked off the job on June 5 and triggered a second strike Friday at another Flint facility, Delphi East, as well as the shutdown of plants elsewhere in North America. Some 9,200 workers are on strike in Flint, and a total of 71,700 workers nationwide are idled as a result.

"When you grow up here, that's what you do -- when you got out of high school, you tried to get into GM," said Kagen, one of five brothers who have worked at GM plants. Kagen went through a three-year layoff from GM in the early '80s and fears, like many union workers, that GM is slowly pulling out of the city that gave it life.

With so many entwined with GM, the strike has made for uneasy times, even within families.

"It's not a comfortable situation," said Ted Martin, a 39-year veteran of GM who, as a salaried management worker at the metal-stamping plan, continues to go to work and draw paychecks. "It affects the whole community. A lot of people will never recover from these strikes."

Martin's wife is an hourly worker at the plant and thus on strike. He has relatives also at the striking Delphi plant. "It's kind of a funny situation," Martin said, but a manageable one. His concern is for the future of the only company he has ever worked for.

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