At a shuttered GM plant, frustration, confusion…and flowers

The Willow Run Transmission plant in Michigan will close in late 2010, bringing uncertainty to the people and the places that built their lives around America’s largest automaker.

By MARK GUARINO  |  Christian Science Monitor / June 2, 2009 edition

Ypsilanti, Mich.

The flowers that keep appearing on Don Skidmore’s desk were not sent in celebration. They arrived to mourn a loss.

“Lots of love today. I’m blessed,” says Mr. Skidmore.

He would rather not be so fortunate. As president of the United Auto Workers Local 735 in Canton, Mich., Skidmore helped deliver the news Monday morning to 1,100 workers at the Willow Run Transmission Plant: They would lose their jobs in December 2010. General Motors would close the plant after operating it for 56 years.

After workers learned the news, a peculiar thing happened: They applauded. “Our people have class,” he says. “It’s a cold-hearted company.”

It is a desperate company, and until Monday the Willow Run Transmission Plant in Ypsilanti, Mich., shared that purpose. Now, it provides a glimpse inside the 17 communities that found themselves still standing when GM stopped the music Monday.

Pride and frustration

There are equal measures of pride, frustration, and confusion, as workers try to comprehend why their plant was the one that GM no longer wanted. Yet above all, there is uncertainty for the people and the places that built their lives around America’s largest automaker.

Standing under the hot afternoon sun outside the Willow Run plant after his shift, Jack Byrne says the announcement was not a surprise. For him, as well as many GM workers who were informally polled Monday, GM was mismanaged and was slow to adapt to changing consumer demands.

Mr. Byrne, who is 60 and worked at the facility for 34 years, says he will probably gather Social Security benefits. He doesn’t think he will be able to find new work. “I don’t think there will be work in this area, the state even,” he says.

Mad at Obama

There is some anger here, directed largely at President Obama. He allowed GM to redirect resources to Mexico, where workers are not protected by unions. And at the expense of Willow Run, he allowed GM to spare its transmissions facility in Toledo, Ohio, which is maxed to capacity.

Dan Wallace, who worked at Willow Run for 32 years and is a machine welder, says hearing the news “was devastating. Everybody’s sad.” The workers knew the likelihood of a closure but “had hopes of consolidation” with another plant, says Mr. Wallace.

Six hundred UAW workers will be transferred to the Toledo facility, Skidmore says. Three hundred will likely take a buyout, and the remaining 300 will “ride out their time” until the plant closes.

One factory line worker, who asked that his name not be used because he is a contractor, says the worst effect will be felt by the city of Ypsilanti itself, which will see a “trickle-down effect” from the shuttering on local businesses.

“Everything in Michigan is so tied up with the auto industry … it affects everything,” he says.

A hard hit for Ypsilanti Township

The Willow Run Transmission Plant is known as the automotive plant that “saved the world from Hitler,” says Karen Lovejoy Roe, Ypsilanti Township clerk. It sits on former farmland owned by Henry Ford, and in 1943 the Ford Motor Co. built the facility to build much-needed military aircraft bombers in World War II.

GM purchased the plant in 1953. Today it is one of three GM plants in North America to build six-speed transmissions, along with the Toledo facility and one in Silao, Mexico.

Ms. Lovejoy Roe says GM generates the largest tax revenue for the township, which amounted to $1.5 million in 2008. The loss of that money, she says, will “hurt, especially in these times.” The township is already operating at 2003 revenues, she says.

“We’ve already been hit pretty hard,” she says. “This adds to the problem folks are having.”

She says her office is contacting Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D) and Rep. John Dingell (D) to find out exactly who was responsible for the decision to close Willow Run.

“We think maybe some mistake was made,” she says. “Our folks did everything right and they didn’t get rewarded. They got slam-dunked.”

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