Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Friday marks bittersweet finale for scores of GM workers who are retiring

Saturday, July 01, 2006
General Motors buyouts
End of the line
Friday marks bittersweet finale for scores of GM workers who are retiring
Brett Clanton, Sharon Terlep and Louis Aguilar / The Detroit News

It's a tradition at General Motors Corp.'s engine plant in Ypsilanti Township for retiring workers to leave their boots at the gate on their final day on the job.

The boots usually attract little notice since no more than a few workers retire at a time. On Friday, they were unavoidable.

Dozens of pairs hugged the fence at the plant's main gate. As the boots stood in the sun, the workers who once wore them pulled away from the plant for the last time.

Friday marked perhaps the biggest ever one-day exodus of GM workers under a landmark buyout and early retirement program. In all, 35,000 workers are leaving the ailing automaker by the end of the year, but thousands punched out for the last time Friday.

The buyout program is part of a sweeping turnaround plan at GM, which is cutting costs after a $10.6 billion loss last year.

Offered to all 113,000 of GM's U.S. hourly workers, the program was chiefly aimed at ushering out 36,000 retirement-eligible workers, but also extended cash buyouts of up to $140,000 to lower-seniority workers.

At GM facilities nationwide, workers reacted with mixed feelings as they watched their friends and co-workers walk out the door. While there were quiet celebrations and many hugs and handshakes, there was also an anxious and empty feeling among those who remained.

"Now, I know what it must have felt like when they evacuated for Hurricane Katrina," said Chris "Tiny" Sherwood, president of United Auto Workers Local 652, who watched as 950 of his nearly 5,000 members departed Friday from GM plants in Lansing.

GM officials would not say how many hourly workers left on Friday, but acknowledged that "significant" numbers were expected.

Each month, more will leave

Workers have been leaving the company since April. Many, however, waited until the buyout offer expired at the end of June to see if a better offer came along, and after they had accumulated enough weeks on the job this year to be paid for accrued vacation time.

Others will leave in smaller waves on the first of each month from now until the end of the year. Under an agreement brokered with the UAW in March, GM is allowed to hold onto departing workers until Jan. 1, 2007, to keep plants running as replacement workers arrive.

A stronger-than-expected response has enabled GM to exceed its goal of cutting 30,000 U.S. hourly jobs two years earlier than expected. And it has bolstered investor confidence in GM's turnaround prospects.

But the departure of so many experienced workers also is raising questions about GM's ability to maintain quality, safety and productivity in its factories.

Paul Marr, manager of a GM midsize car plant in Fairfax, Va., said the company and UAW have been working closely in teams at his plant to ensure a smooth transition.

Lower-wage temporary workers and transferred GM workers from other facilities are being trained extensively before taking over a job vacated by a retiring worker. A standardized production process is also being rigorously enforced.

After all, he said, "our customers don't care about the attrition program when they go to buy a car. They just want a quality product."

'I'm not looking back'

While GM is focused on managing one of the biggest corporate downsizing events in U.S. history, some workers said Friday they were glad to leave it all behind.

"I'm not looking back," said Donald Spencer, 59, who is retiring from a GM plant in Lansing after 38 years. "I don't owe GM nothing, and they don't owe me nothing."

Reclining in a chair at the union hall after his shift and wearing a shirt reading "Big Don," Spencer said he planned to spend his retirement running a lawn-mowing business and rebuilding race car engines.

Workers were permitted to leave almost immediately after punching in to work on Friday, but many stayed for hours, giving teary goodbyes and chatting with coworkers about their retirement plans.

They came with children and grandchildren in tow, many showing family members the factory floors for the first time.

One worker described the mood as "ebullient," another couldn't stop crying.

"You wonder where all the time goes," said Pontiac's Harold Rodriguez, who retired early Friday from the GM plant in Orion Township. He started work at the Pontiac plant after graduating high school in 1968.

Final farewells

Rodriguez was among the retirees who turned up after work for a party at Hoops bar near the Orion plant, where a sign outside read, "Welcome GM Orion Plant. Good Luck Harold." Inside, coworkers downed beers and told stories, while Rodriguez, donning wing-tip shoes and a feathered cap for the party, weighed his post-retirement options.

"I could go to another job, take some classes, play more golf," he said, grinning. "You get skeptical sometimes, thinking about whether you made the right choice. I want to just sit back and enjoy the fruits of my labor."

Across town at the Pontiac Assembly Center, where the GMC Sierra and Chevy Silverado are built, 957 of the 4,021 hourly workers accepted a buyout or early retirement. But it was unclear how many of those were walking out on Friday.

Having seen so many of their co-workers take early retirements or accept previous incentives to leave in the past few years, some remaining workers said that Friday hardly felt like a watershed moment.

"There were a lot of (going away) cakes today, but it didn't seem like an extraordinary day," said Dawn Gilett, who started working at General Motors 30 years ago at the age of 17. "Everyone thinks about it lot and you always have to weigh your individual situation."

Among the 24 hourly workers in Gillett's quality inspection department, one person left today. But three others left last month and two others plan to retire in September when they hit their 30-year mark.

Mike Kelly, another GM worker in Pontiac, was in the same camp. He said he didn't accept a buyout because he is two months shy of his 30-year anniversary and wanted to leave then with a full retirement.

"It's really hard work," said Kelly, 47, after his shift. "That's why I want to leave and that's why I understand why so many people took (the buyout)."

Delphi workers depart, too

Also Friday, workers at bankrupt auto supplier Delphi Corp. left behind jobs under a similar buyout program. At Delphi, 12,600 of the company's 33,000-strong U.S. hourly work force signed up for early retirements and are eligible to leave through the end of the year.

A Delphi spokesman also declined to say how many workers were exiting under the program on Friday.

Perhaps no words could sum up the day as poignantly as the boots lining the gate at GM's plant in Ypsilanti Township. One-third of the plant's 3,300 workers are leaving behind more than boots, they are saying goodbye to a way of life.

You can reach Brett Clanton at (313) 222-2612 or bclanton@detnews.com.


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