- The Washington Times - Monday, June 8, 2009

HOLT, Mich. | Two days after the government’s historic takeover of General Motors Corp., Commerce Secretary Gary Locke was far away from Washington, D.C.

He had been dispatched along with several other Cabinet members on a listening tour in the heartland. Holding court inside an auto parts supplier company Wednesday morning, he offered a simple message to a stricken group: The Obama administration cares and wants to help put the pieces back together for those hit hardest by the auto crisis.

Grim yet resolute faces — mayors, business owners, line workers — stared back as the secretary politely fielded questions town-hall style at Dakkota Integrated Systems in Holt, which supplies interior components such as door and instrument panels for GM vehicles.

“President Obama and the administration have no intention of being involved in the day-to-day operations of GM, even though we’re a major shareholder now,” Mr. Locke told the crowd of about 200, gathered inside a spotless warehouse at a company that has lost employees as a result of the slumping economy and sagging auto sales.

“We need to leave that to the experts,” he said. “If the federal government gets involved in the day-to-day management, including the promotion and advertisement of these great products, where does it stop?”

Even as he pushed back on future federal involvement as GM began its restructuring plan, Mr. Locke did offer one salve to this beleaguered flock of manufacturers. He promised that the Obama administration would be focused on addressing fair-trade issues for the U.S. automakers, who have long complained that U.S. trade policies have put American companies on an uneven playing field with their foreign counterparts.

If the industry is to re-emerge as competitive after the bankruptcies of powerhouses like GM and Chrysler LLC, the trade question is a key piece of the future that these stakeholders say must be addressed.

“It’s music to my ears,” Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero said about Mr. Locke’s promise.

Mr. Bernero, after the event, said that his community, where massive auto plants have been shuttered, was tired of getting the short end of the trade stick. He and others at the event said trade is the central issue if the U.S. is to emerge with any solid auto manufacturing future.

“They haven’t stolen our jobs. We’ve given it to them,” the feisty mayor said of foreign companies. “People in America are longing for the American label, but it’s getting harder to find it. Our foreign competitors have been getting away with murder under previous administrations. We plan to hold [the Obama administration’s] feet to the fire.”

Lansing is not the only community feeling the drain of fleeing jobs. Mark Robbins, 22, a Pontiac, Mich., resident whose grandfather recently retired from GM, doesn’t have work.

“None of us have a job. You can’t find a job around here right now. It’s impossible,” he said.

He lamented the previous layoffs and expected more. Auto woes are transforming his city.

“You got 60-year-old people working at McDonald’s ‘cause they can’t find a job ‘cause they worked at GM all their life and all of a sudden got laid off,” he said.

Dennis Keat, chief executive officer of the Su-Dan Corp. of Rochester Hills, Mich., which provides welded steel parts to companies like Dakkota, told Mr. Locke that GM’s “supporting cast” of suppliers needs help now as the industry reorganizes.

“We’re all working hard here” he said, clutching a shiny black component as he addressed the crowd. “We are trying to retain jobs. We are trying to retain competitiveness in the U.S.,” but his company has a hard time going up against issues like cheaper steel prices in Asia.

Shawn Powe, a five-year Dakkota employee and a first-shift auto union representative, said it felt good that the administration had acknowledged the supply sector, which is the backbone of auto companies but receives little attention for its key role. He was glad for the government outreach but hopes for more than face time. He, like the others, demanded action.

“It’s been rough,” Mr. Powe, 41, said of the past few months. He is a third-generation auto worker — his grandfather worked for GM for 60 years — and his eyes welled with tears as he talked of his colleagues who had been let go.

Mr. Powe acknowledged that the auto bankruptcies were inevitable, but said he hopes that the regrouping goes quickly. He wants Americans to move past perceptions that American-made cars aren’t top-grade. He makes a passionate defense of both car culture and country.

“It bothers us, sure. We know the cars that we make are exceptional. We break our backs to create good quality cars.”

Now, he said, it’s up to Americans to step up and buy them, to invest in products that have made the nation strong.

“Right now is a pivotal moment in American history,” Mr. Powe said with emotion, adding that he is a Christian and his faith will not allow him to be negative — or lose sight of a better day.

Mr. Locke, who was sympathetic to the impact felt in auto states such as Michigan, echoed the administration’s faith in manufacturing and its power to preserve families and support communities. He called the storm of the recent auto crisis the nation’s “economic Katrina.”

Like Mr. Powe, the secretary invoked the spirit of the country and its history of rising in times of hardship. He is looking for increased dialogue on how government can best help workers and companies and foresees a brighter day ahead.

“Americans have always rallied in times of crisis,” he said. “We have always persevered and succeeded and we will again in Michigan and across the country. Hang in there.”

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