Once Again, City Finds It's Focal Point of Labor Strife

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Visitors to United Auto Workers Union Local 659 are warned in no uncertain terms that foreign cars are "absolutely prohibited" in the parking lot.

A sign fronting the union hall proclaims that this is "home of the 1937 sitdowners," a proud monument to workers who occupied General Motors plants for 44 days until the company recognized the UAW for the first time.

Welcome to Flint, the quintessential company town that is stuck in a time warp. While much of the world moves forward, this hard-luck center of union might and militancy again finds itself stuck on the picket line.

This week two UAW strikes that threaten to shut down GM's operations nationwide have placed Flint, a city of 160,000 mostly blue-collar residents, at ground zero in what is shaping up to be an epic labor battle.

While GM and the UAW have much at risk, Flint--not long ago portrayed as a down-and-out poster child for the Rust Belt--itself could again become the biggest victim regardless of the outcome.

"There is an imminent danger that these strikes could cause further disinvestment," said William Donohue, head of the Genesee Area Focus Council, a business group trying to spur investment in the city.

The UAW is striking GM in disputes over work rules, factory conditions and job security. About 3,400 workers at a stamping plant walked out a week ago. They were joined Thursday by 5,800 workers at a major parts factory across town.

The disputes threaten to bring all of GM's North American operations to a halt by the end of next week, costing the industrial giant up to $300 million a week in lost profit as well as crucial market share. The walkouts have already closed eight assembly plants and partially shuttered 16 parts plants and other facilities, idling nearly 25,000 workers across the country.

The strikes come as the nation's economy is humming and corporate profits are rolling along. But many auto workers in Flint feel left out of the party. They bitterly say that their high-pay jobs are at risk even as Big Three executives pocket multimillion-dollar bonuses and move work abroad or to nonunion firms.

Long, Expensive Walkout Looms

Amid this atmosphere of fear and distrust, the expectation is increasing that the strikes could be long and costly.

"If we have to stand out here until hell freezes over, we'll do that," said Clayton Crewes, a 60-year-old die setter as he picketed in a light drizzle on Wednesday.

Labor strife is nothing new to Flint, and many hard-line union members here display a rampant xenophobia and conspiratorial suspicion of corporate bigwigs and their Wall Street cronies.

"There are age-old animosities being played out here," said David Cole, director of the University of Michigan's auto study office. "But every strike like this drives another stake in Flint's heart."

Flint, 65 miles north of Detroit, has struggled with the devastating effects of plant closings and downsizing for two decades. In the 1980s, it was so ravaged by unemployment, crime and business failures that it became a heart-wrenching symbol of America's failed manufacturing sector.

Despite losing nearly 50,000 high-paying auto jobs in the last 20 years, Flint is still home to 33,000 GM workers, the largest concentration of hourly GM employees anywhere in the world.

Flint is a tightknit community where it is not uncommon for three generations of families to have toiled in the same Buick or Chevrolet plant. So pervasive is GM's influence that it still accounts for 65% of the local economy.

Announced plant closings and further downsizing could cut that to 35% in five years, according to Genesee County officials. Local economic officials say GM could close half its 24 plants here and cut 11,000 jobs in the next few years. Already slated for closure is the 22-square-block Buick City assembly complex.

There is a growing frustration and animosity in Flint regarding its corporate benefactor. Many union members say the auto giant is slowly abandoning the town and workers in a global search for the almighty dollar.

"GM grew to be the highly profitable corporation it is based on the work of people in communities like Flint," said UAW Vice President Richard Shoemaker. "GM has a responsibility to the workers and community here."

Liberal Light for Social Change

Flint is the birthplace of GM, whose founder, William C. Durant, moved Buick here in 1904. Massive factories sprang up all over the city. When the Depression hit, layoffs hit hard and assembly lines were speeded up. The social upheaval led to union organizing and the famed sit-down strikes.

In the years that followed, the UAW became a liberal light for social change, negotiating contracts with higher wages and benefits. The union's advances helped create an affluent middle class, which fed an economic boom nationally in the 1950s and '60s. Flint was a model city supported by the wealth of its auto barons.

Trouble loomed in the early 1970s with the Arab oil embargo. The Japanese arrived with smaller, cheaper, more efficient cars. By 1978, Flint began to feel the pain. GM, which then employed about 77,000 workers, began its first layoffs. More plant closings came after the 1981 recession, and cutbacks continued into the early 1990s.

Flint's upheaval came into the public consciousness with Michael Moore's 1989 film "Roger & Me," a satirical documentary about the city's decline as a result of GM plant closures.

As in many other Midwest industrial cities, Flint's decay began long before the plant closings exacerbated things. The city's downtown was dotted with boarded-up buildings as businesses fled to the suburbs. Flint's crime rate soared; it wore the dubious distinction as the nation's murder capital for a while. Money magazine rated it in 1987 as the worst city in America in which to live.

Several attempts to revitalize Flint failed. The city built AutoWorld, a theme park without rides along the Flint River. It lasted less than a year. A Hyatt Hotel was built but went bankrupt. Today the downtown is still largely vacant, with most activity tied to the campus of the University of Michigan-Flint.

Still, things are better today than a decade ago, largely because of the prolonged boom in the auto industry. Unemployment in Genesee County is under 5%, though it remains 30% for black males in Flint.

Efforts to diversify Flint's economy have generally failed, although the area has been able to attract some auto suppliers and service businesses to make up for the loss of GM jobs. But the area's average wage levels--though still above the national mean--have fallen in recent years.

"This impacts the city's whole quality of life negatively," said Paul Ballew, chief economist for J.D. Power and Associates.

In an effort to turn things around, local officials two years ago formed a group to develop a strategy to attract new investment and manufacturers to Flint. One recommendation was that the UAW should help GM become leaner and more efficient to compete globally.

Waning Market Share Forces Job Cuts

Although GM made $6.7 billion last year, its profit margins in North America are a narrow 3% and the efficiency of its U.S. plants lags that of rivals. As the company has lost market share--from near 50% in the 1970s to 32% today--it has found itself with too many workers and factories. Since 1985 the company has trimmed 212,000 union jobs; only 223,000 remain.

The UAW, which has lost 700,000 members as the auto industry contracts, is highly suspicious of GM's restructuring efforts. Nowhere is the distrust greater than in Flint, where many UAW members oppose cooperative union-management programs. Union leaders accuse GM of not living up to commitments.

"The local unions in this region have bent over backward to improve quality and efficiency--even though again and again the consequence has been closed plants, sold operations and lost jobs," said Ruben Berks, head of UAW operations in the Flint area.

Alleged broken promises are at the heart of the current strike at the stamping plant. The union says GM has not invested $300 million in new equipment and technology. The company counters that the UAW has reneged on agreed-upon work-rule changes that would allow it to run the plant more efficiently.

On the picket lines, anger and frustration are evident.

"They treat us like garbage," said C.J. Hamilla, a 40-year-old welder who has worked for GM for 21 years. "They say one thing and do another. The job to me is nothing more than a paycheck anymore."

Both Hamilla's father and grandfather worked in Flint auto plants, and GM has given him a comfortable middle-class lifestyle. But he sees little future for his three children in Flint or in the auto industry.

Sporting a ponytail and wearing a Detroit Red Wings shirt, Hamilla did not hide his contempt for his employer.

"Anything that is wrong in this town is caused by GM," he said.

Jim Tackabury, a 47-year-old forklift operator, is less angry than resigned when it comes to a continuing reduction in auto jobs in Flint. He believes that GM wants to move the jobs to Mexico.

"How can we compete making $20 an hour with a Mexican making $1.50 an hour?" he asks. "There is no way we can stop it."

"My generation is witnessing the passing of a way of life," he said.

UAW leaders accuse GM of abandoning Flint as part of an "America-last" strategy designed to move high-paying U.S. jobs abroad. GM dismisses the UAW's charges, noting that it has agreed to invest $21 billion in U.S. plants, including $1.5 billion in Flint, in the next five years.

Despite GM's commitments, industry experts are not optimistic about Flint's future.

"Flint won't turn around," said David Littman, chief economist for Comerica Bank in Detroit. "It represents the old ways."

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* WIDER SHUTDOWN THREAT: Walkout raises specter of shutdown of GM's entire North American production. A13

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