WisBusiness: Union members react to GM shutdown plans

By Brian E. Clark

JANESVILLE – When Pam Good graduated from Craig High School 22 years ago, she considered herself lucky when she landed a job at the General Motors assembly plant here.

“I planned to retire from this place,” said Good, who is an assembler at the sprawling facility and financial secretary for United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 95.

With Tuesday’s announcement that GM will close the Janesville plant in 2010, that dream has been all but snuffed out.

“I’m very disappointed,” said Good, who is 40. “A lot of people I know are devastated. It’s terrible news.”

Good blamed high gas prices, which make driving the large SUVs that are produced in Janesville too expensive for many Americans who are shifting to smaller, less expensive vehicles. Sales of the SUVs and trucks that were once GM’s money makers have fallen significantly in recent months.

Union leaders Brad Dutcher, president of the Local 95; and John Dohner Jr., head of the local’s bargaining committee – as well as Gov. Jim Doyle – said they would push GM to build light cars at the Janesville plant.

They all warned, however, that the chances of that happening are slim.

If that is correct, Good will need to start looking for another job next year. Or if gas prices stay night and SUV sales continue to fall, even sooner.

But Good said she has not begun to think about another career.

“At this point, I’m just letting it sink in,” she said. “Then I’ll just go on from there.”

Bill Smith, another assembler at the plant, said he was shocked by the news of the coming shutdown of the nearly 100-year-old factory. But not that surprised.

“They’ve talked about this for years, but when it finally happens it really hits hard,” he said. “You always figure that things will bounce back even if they end one shift like they announced they’d do a month or so ago.

“But if the plant is closed, there’s no bouncing back,” he said. “Our only hope is to bring another product line here because with the cost of gas so high, I don’t see a lot of people wanting to buy the SUVs that we make. It’s sad, too, they are great vehicles, but the mileage honestly isn’t that great.”

Vernette Garecht, whose late husband Phillip worked at GM for more than 35 years, said she was not surprised by the news.

“People have been talking about the possibility for some time, so you kind of thought it was coming,” she said.

She said her husband enjoyed his time at the plant, where he started around Christmas 1955 – shortly after they moved from North Dakota.

“The work was good and we lived close by so he could walk to work,” she said. “We raised a family here and it was wonderful for us.”

Garecht said her husband survived one cutback, but was able to get his old shift back when production increased.

“I do feel bad for the people who will lose their jobs, even if it’s not until 2010,” she said. “It will have a big impact on this community. You can’t have several thousand jobs go away without it hurting a lot.”

Fortunately for Garecht, her GM pension should not be affected.

“I’m pretty much set,” she said. “But for the workers with families, it’ll be hard.”

Dohner, the union leader, was both philosophical and bitter over the GM decision.

“This decision was driven by economy,” he said at a Tuesday afternoon conference attended by Gov. Doyle. “With the rising price of oil, the market has moved away from our vehicles, which are some of the best we’ve ever made.”

“But the sales have dropped, the SUV market isn’t there and we continue to deal with politicians in the White House who continue to let the middle class erode,” he charged.

He also said he is alarmed that so few people seem to care that American manufacturing and other jobs are being shipped overseas.

“Where is the pride in America,” he asked. “This doesn’t affect us. It affects the community and every one of us. It’s time for Americans to wake up and take America back to provide a future for our kids because pretty soon none of us are going to have jobs.”

Dohner also vented at reporters covering the UAW for driving foreign-made cars and said GM might not be in its current position if they bought American brands.