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“Our 2007 national agreement was groundbreaking,” he said, noting that a two-tiered pay realignment plan has put some wages as low as $14 per hour. “We took billions off GM’s balance sheet, so when you hear about the urban myth that we’re all out here making $71 an hour, it’s just that, a myth.”

See related story: Allies bolster bailout blitz for Big Three

Although GM’s Mr. Wagoner has steadfastly refused to discuss bankruptcy as an option, even as some members of his board have suggested it, Mr. Sarkey thinks that may be an intended option, designed to remove organized labor from the industry.

“You have to wonder if there is some kind of plot to break the unions,” he said. “I know they would love to do that, and filing bankruptcy is a way to get around the contract.”

Rob Fehrenbach, an auto industry consultant from Dewitt, Mich., who works at Lansing’s Grand River Assembly Plant, said the loan package debates dominate lunchroom discussions with his colleagues. He joined GM when he was 18 and retired in July. Now at 49, with two children in college and another in high school, he returned as a consultant, which means his job also could be on the line without a federal loan.

He said the watching and waiting for Washington is stressful. “We think we are getting dealt a raw hand. It’s kind of a double standard they are holding us to. They opened their wallets to AIG and the banking industry, but when GM, Ford and Chrysler came to the table, it seemed like they were under a microscope.”

He said lawmakers must realize that if the U.S. auto industry collapses, the trickle-down will be felt across the country as suppliers, dealers and other related auto sectors are crushed.

“I think it’s a real risk with Congress playing Russian roulette in having us wait and come back with a plan,” he said. “Any of the three of us could fail at any minute if sales lag long enough. If manufacturing goes to its knees, I don’t know if the nation can recover from it.”

He adds: “We were all talking about it before Thanksgiving and saying that we could live to see one or more of the Big Three fail in our lifetime. It was kind of a sad conversation, but I think everyone here is enough of a realist to say that if things don’t get better, they will have to change. People here are holding on and doing the best they can. But it’s a hard pill to swallow.”

Mr. Sarkey agreed.

“The whole environment has changed so much,” he said. “It used to be such an enjoyable place to work. Those who decided to stick it out and not take the buyouts, they go to work every day and it’s miserable because they don’t know what is happening and if they are going to have a job tomorrow. It’s like walking on hot coals all the time.”