- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 14, 2009

WARREN, Mich. | With the eyes of the world’s auto media squarely on Detroit for the North American International Auto Show, union workers and their supporters went on the passionate offensive Tuesday by holding a “Stand Up for American Workers and Products” rally in the heart of Detroit’s auto industry.

Warren Mayor Jim Fouts led an afternoon event inside the atrium of City Hall, passing out free “Buy American” bumper stickers and encouraging the mostly blue-collar union crowd to band together for not only their livelihood but also the strength of the nation.

Fighting against a perception that unions were to blame for the country’s auto woes, he and a host of speakers led a spirited defense of manufacturing’s role in defining the middle class and decried congressional criticism that it might be time for them to go.

“The stakes are high for our economy,” he said. “This is a national issue - not a city, state or regional issue,” the mayor said to cheers and a standing ovation.

Wearing colorful jackets touting their United Auto Workers locals and shirts printed with Ford, Chrysler and General Motors Corp. logos, union members filled the room with signs that railed against unfair trade and foreign brands.

The mayor, who has aggressively urged his key staff members to make their next vehicle purchases American, displayed his own new black Dodge Charger, parked right inside City Hall, and he urged U.S. consumers to follow his lead and invest in some economic patriotism - before it was too late.

“I challenge U.S. Senator Richard Shelby to visit the Chrysler Truck Plant in Warren to see how auto workers do their jobs,” the mayor said.

“In fact, I will pay for his plane fare and lodging. Senator Shelby, come to Warren and get an education about the auto industry.”

Detroit’s largest suburb and Michigan’s third-largest city with a population of 137,000, Warren is home to more than 30,000 auto workers, thousands more retirees and countless suppliers. If GM or Chrysler went belly up, his city would end up a ghost town. On Tuesday, he put on his best blitz to ensure that doesn’t happen.

With thousands of journalists worldwide in town for the auto show, the mayor sought to drum up publicity for the plight of U.S. auto companies. The companies received a $17.4 bridge loan late last year from Congress, but are facing massive restructuring and possible union concessions in order to get continued federal help.

Auto workers here continue to fight what they say is a false public perception they are overpaid and make low-quality vehicles. Chris Vitale, a rally speaker and Chrysler employee, spoke out against the industry’s “national inferiority complex.”

“Detroit has allowed itself to be painted as a dinosaur,” he said before touting its development of key auto technology over the years including the catalytic converter along with other emissions and safety standards. “Ford was testing airbags here when the Beatles were still together,” he said.

“If it’s important and comes from a car, it was probably invented within 100 miles from where I stand,” said Mr. Vitale, noting the GM plant that was literally within walking distance from Warren’s government complex.

“As the Big Three auto companies, go, so goes the U.S. economy,” the mayor said. “The auto industry produces wealth for Main Street USA, unlike Wall Street that just produces greed, golden parachutes for executives and fleets of company-owned jets.”

Mr. Vitale called on Congress to update foreign trade policies that he said have harmed U.S. manufacturers. He described bankruptcy as a bad plan that breaks the nation’s trust, even as some Southern lawmakers have suggested it as an auto industry option.

“I see the value of fair trade, but what I’m asking for is a level field.”

Ford worker Brian Pennebaker said the U.S. auto industry had helped the nation fight its wars by providing planes and tanks for World War II as well as significant support during domestic crises like the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina.

“We want consumers to support domestic car companies by buying American-made cars and trucks that we are proud to design, premiere, test and build. Is that so much to ask for an industry that has done so much for America?”

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