Federal auto recovery director tours Flint plant
By KATHY BARKS HOFFMAN, Associated Press Writer
FLINT, May 8, 2009 (AP): Michigan will continue to be targeted for federal help as it adjusts to the loss of thousands of jobs related to the troubled auto industry, Ed Montgomery said Friday.
President Barack Obama's Director of Recovery for Auto Communities and Workers continued a two-day swing through the state to listen to pleas for help from local officials and workers in cities stretching from Grand Rapids to Detroit.
Acting Flint Mayor Michael Brown told Montgomery how his city had gone from 80,000 auto jobs in the late 1970s to 7,500 now. More than 400 of those workers are employed at General Motors Corp.'s sprawling Flint Engine South plant, which Montgomery toured Friday before meeting with around 100 local officials and other community members at Mott Community College.
The plant makes the engines used in GM's highly popular crossover vehicles as well as the Chevrolet Malibu and Traverse and the Cadillac CTS. It soon will be retooled to manufacture the engine for the Chevy Volt, the plug-in hybrid GM plans to launch next year.
GM announced earlier this week that it will close all or portions of 23 engine, transmission and parts factories across the U.S. for up to nine weeks because vehicle-making plants also will be idled. But the Flint engine plant will close for just the traditional two-week break, spokeswoman Sharon Basel said.
The GM truck assembly plant in Flint that employs 2,100 workers won't be so lucky. Workers who build heavy duty pickups will be out of work as of Monday and won't be called back to work until nine weeks later, Basel said.
Workers who build medium-duty trucks at the plant will be off only for the normal two-week break in late June and early July, she added. But workers at some of GM's other Flint operations will find themselves on extended furloughs. The Flint area March unemployment rate was 15.3 percent, while the state rate was 12.6 percent.
United Auto Workers Region 1-C director, Duane Zuckschwerdt, who accompanied Montgomery on the plant tour and during the community college meeting, said federal officials need to understand that it's not just the auto industry that's hurting in Michigan.
People laid off in related industries are losing their health insurance, which ``puts a tremendous strain on health care providers,'' he said. Small businesses also are affected.
Zuckschwerdt said he's among the many UAW members concerned that GM may head into bankruptcy if it can't meet a June 1 deadline to cut its debt, reduce labor costs and take other restructuring steps.
There's a lot of concern about what bankruptcy could mean for current and retired workers' pensions and health care benefits, he said, and about how many plants GM ultimately will close.
Montgomery tried to reassure Michigan officials and workers during the invitation-only community meeting.
``The president made a commitment that we will stand behind the auto companies and workers,'' he said, adding that he's giving Michigan the most attention because it's the state hardest hit by the domestic auto industry's troubles.
Montgomery also visited the GM Technical Center in Warren and met with community leaders and federal, state and local officials at Macomb County Community College.
Standing in front of the Cadillac Converj, an electric concept vehicle, at the tech center, he said communities should not expect a quick fix from the government.
``Clearly, the problems that we face and the challenges that we face today didn't occur overnight and they're not going to be solved overnight,'' Montgomery said. ``We need to get the economy growing. We need to get people buying automobiles again.''
He also visited NextEnergy, a Detroit-based nonprofit that is trying to accelerate development of alternative energy technologies.
Gov. Jennifer Granholm and members of Michigan's congressional delegation are accompanying Montgomery during his visit, as are federal officials from the Small Business Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency and the departments of Housing and Urban Development, Energy, Commerce, Labor, Transportation and Treasury.
Associated Press Writer Ben Leubsdorf in Warren contributed to this report.