- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The industry as they know it is sure to come undone.

Without a loan, they cannot continue. Even with it, change will come quickly and with that the pain of not only restructuring, but likely loss.

“They’re anxious, frustrated, scared and angry,” says Brian Fredline, a United Auto Workers Local 602 president who has worked for General Motors Corp. for 23 years. He was describing the mood of his 3,000 members who assemble crossover sport utility vehicles like the Acadia at GM’s sprawling Delta Township plant near Lansing.

It is more, he confides, than simply jobs drying up, although after 23 years, he has worries for his own family and union membership. For many like Mr. Fredline, whose grandfathers put in more than 40 years each and whose own father worked 37 years in the factory, it’s the evaporation of a generation of history and legacy. That in itself brings sadness that a larger family of sorts is dying.

“It all may be coming to an end,” Mr. Fredline, 50, said with a heaviness in his voice. “When you’ve had generations worth of security, that tends to affect you.”

Across Michigan, where the auto industry has been a foundation for decades and a backbone of U.S. manufacturing, everyone from line workers, to parts suppliers to auto dealers is watching this week to see if a lifeline from lawmakers will keep them afloat.

Hearings will continue Thursday after a disastrous start last week. Auto company heads were criticized by Congress as arrogant for traveling by private jet to Washington as they came to beg for money. This time, GM Chairman Rick Wagoner plans to drive in a Chevrolet Malibu hybrid. Ford Chief Executive Officer Alan R. Mulally will travel to Washington in a Ford Escape hybrid.

In addition to shining a spotlight on their commitments to more fuel-efficient technology, seen as key to their survival, the auto executives distanced themselves from financial chiefs who took millions of dollars in bonuses. They announced Tuesday that they would accept yearly salaries of $1 in exchange for the $25 billion in federal loans. Mr. Wagoner was to earn $2.2 million this year after taking a 50 percent pay cut in 2006. Mr. Mulally’s salary in 2007 was $21 million.

In addition, the UAW has called an emergency meeting in Detroit for Wednesday where it will discuss further cutbacks that could include ending its controversial jobs bank. The talks may call for a reopening of its 2007 contract to show its willingness to make even more concessions after a significant restructuring plan last year.

Whether all of this will be enough to change the public perception, which gnaws at workers in the industry, is another matter.

David Sarkey, a GM electrician for 22 years who retired last year, said he is more than a little bit ticked at how people view his profession.

“Maybe sometimes I didn’t break a sweat every day, but I was there baby-sitting the line and it was pressure,” Mr. Sarkey said. “In my best years, I made $55,000 tops. I’m sick of people claiming we all make $75 per hour when what they don’t realize is that those figures they are citing include lots of things rolled in, including health care.”

What bothers Mr. Sarkey even more is that critics tend to focus on the rank and file and not the corporate world.

“Why are the blaming us? It should always be from the top down, but it gets blamed on the worker. That is ludicrous. It’s the company that sat on its hands and decided to belch out SUVs, so when gas prices go up, people are buying Hondas and Toyotas. What did they think would happen?”

Likewise, Mr. Fredline can’t understand how the public refuses to give the workers credit for recent concessions.

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