Michigan leaders give Obama deputy an earful over GM plans

Cabinet members are touring auto country to offer the administration’s support. Michigan stands to be hit hardest by GM’s bankruptcy plans.

By MARK GUARINO  |  Correspondent / June 2, 2009 edition

Ypsilanti, Mich.

Many of Michigan’s most influential state- and local-level leaders gathered in a college boardroom Tuesday to welcome their guest of honor: US Labor Secretary Hilda Solis.

Then the interrogation began:

Why did General Motors choose to close the plants it did?

When will more federal help arrive for a state that leads the nation in unemployment with a 12.9 percent jobless rate in April?

What can President Obama do to stop so many manufacturing jobs from flowing to Mexico?

Of the nine states affected by GM’s bankruptcy plan, announced Monday, Michigan will be hit the hardest. Total job losses in Michigan are 8,900, or 42 percent of all GM’s bankruptcy-related job cuts in North America. Secretary Solis’s presence at Eastern Michigan University Tuesday was the Obama administration’s acknowledgment that Michigan faces unique challenges in the current recession.

State and local officials wanted Solis to turn that condolence into concrete action Tuesday. To some degree, she did, announcing the release of $49 million for the training and support of Michigan workers. But Michigan leaders will press for that spigot to open wider in the coming months.

“All I can tell you is you are very much on our radar screen. Our president gets it,” said Solis.

The choice of venue for Tuesday’s meeting was appropriate. Worker retraining programs are a central element of Michigan’s attempts to recast its economy, and Eastern Michigan University is leading that effort. One of its programs is aimed at displaced, middle-aged auto workers who have spent a career working the factory floor. The goal is to help them transition into management roles or technology-industry jobs.

Don Riviera graduated from the program in December, earning a bachelor’s of science degree after working in the tool-and-die industry his entire career. He had decided to enroll after the fourth company he worked for went out of business. He considered opening his own company, but he knew he lacked business skills. He now operates a seven-person toolmaking and machining company in Gibraltar, Mich.

“We can’t stand still,” says Mr. Riviera.

Andy Levin, deputy director for the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Growth, made this point in the meetings with Solis. The state is seeking a further $58 million from the federal Labor Department to help fund programs like the one at Eastern Michigan, he announced.

“We are going to be a manufacturing state, and job training is crucial,” says Mr. Levin.

But even with these forward-looking efforts, there is still anger about the past. The decision to close a transmission plant in Ypsilanti means GM will manufacture its transmissions in just two North American cities: Toledo, Ohio, and Silao, Mexico.

It’s the second location that frustrates people here. Don Skidmore, president of the United Auto Workers Local 735, implored Solis, saying the Obama administration “somehow has to stop bleeding US jobs to foreign countries.”

Retraining and the potential for new, environmental jobs are important, he said, but secondary to the greater problem of fair trade.

Solis visited the Ypsilanti plant Tuesday and stressed that her department will be examining existing trade agreements in addition to pursuing money for unemployment and career-training programs.

The portrait Ypsilanti leaders painted for Solis was dire. In March, unemployment here reached 8.8 percent, an increase from 5.6 percent a year ago.

“It’s like a tsunami,” says Brenda Stumbo, supervisor of Ypsilanti Township. “We need help.”

She says 4.4 percent of the town’s tax revenue came from GM. For broader Washtenaw County, GM generated $1.5 million in taxes in 2008.

Rep. John Dingell (D) of Michigan says he will ask GM leaders “useful questions” – such as why the Ypsilanti plant was chosen despite producing transmissions that are each $145 cheaper than those produced at competing facilities.

“It appears that they closed the wrong plant at GM,” he says.

Union leader Skidmore appreciates the support. “I feel good,” he says. “Everyone seems to have our back. Whether it means we can save our place [is not certain]. But we will continue the fight.”

Others are more cautious. Former forklift operator Kirk Lane of Farmington Hills, Mich., was forced to retire in April after working for GM for 33 years but says he “is not ready to retire.”

After the panel discussion, he sought out Solis to shake her hand and thank her for coming: If anything, he says, “Michiganders are polite.” But outside, he questions whether she can make a difference in revitalizing manufacturing in his state.

“I hope it wasn’t just grandstanding and backslapping,” he says. “I loved my job. I felt I had a purpose. Now, I’m just retired and doing housework.

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