Uncertainty over GM's fate leaves many wondering about theirs

McClatchy NewspapersApril 10, 2009 

US NEWS GM-BANKRUPTCY MCT

Auto worker Wayne Wilson is a transmission technician at the General Motors powertrain plant in White Marsh, Maryland.

DENNIS DRENNER — Dennis Drenner/MCT

WHITE MARSH, Md. — His 30 years with General Motors have taught Wayne Wilson to be prepared.

When GM decided to close its Tarrytown, N.Y., plant in the mid-1990s, Wilson was transferred to the company's Baltimore assembly plant. By the time the Baltimore facility closed in 2005, Wilson already had been transferred again, this time to the GM transmission plant in nearby White Marsh, Md.

But as the clock winds down on GM's two-month deadline to overhaul its operations to avoid bankruptcy, Wilson said he doesn't have any moves left.

If the White Marsh plant is shuttered in the name of corporate survival, Wilson will likewise call it quits.

"I'm hanging it up," Wilson said. I'm done. I've got 30 years with GM. I'm retiring."

At 50, it's not a choice that Wilson relishes, but tough choices are all that's left for GM employees, retirees, suppliers and shareholders who fear that bankruptcy is the most likely scenario for the world's largest automaker.

At a United Auto Workers retiree meeting this week, 86-year-old Charlie Jacobs of Toledo, Ohio, said members were "reasonably assured" that GM retirees won't see major cuts in their medical benefits as the company looks to trim its legacy costs.

"But if we were called on to give concessions, then we'd have to do it," Jacobs said. "It's not reasonable to expect hourly guys still working to give up everything."

For Jacobs, who grew up during the Great Depression and worked for 22 years at GM's Toledo transmission plant, watching the company's downfall has been painful.

"GM was like the U.S. government. It was supposed to be there forever," Jacobs said. "I never ever thought they would even come close to bankruptcy."

After watching the demise of the U.S. steel industry, the North American Free Trade Agreement and a string of bad U.S. trade policy decisions, though Orval Plumlee, the president of UAW Local 2209 in Roanoke, Ind., said that a GM bankruptcy was always his worst fear.

"This didn't happen by accident. This is basically an attempt to eliminate the middle class," said Plumlee, whose union represents workers at GM's Fort Wayne Assembly plant, which builds trucks.

"We've entered into a world economy and most of the world today has two classes of people — the "haves" and the "have nots." And I fear that's our future unless we can turn this thing around . . . if I sound bitter, it's because I probably am."

Others, like Wilson, are just nervous. The fact that he builds transmissions for hybrid vehicles, a high-growth sales area for GM, is cold comfort in the current economy.

"That transmission goes into a $72,000 Cadillac Escalade. Do the math," Wilson said. "Nobody's working. Nobody's buying."

He's right. In prosperous times, automobile sales make up about 20 percent of U.S. retail spending. But roughly 1,000 car dealerships have closed in the past year, taking more than 50,000 jobs with them. Other dealers are laying off workers.

With consumer confidence near a 42-year low in March, auto sales continued to suffer even though dealers offered a record average of $3,169 in incentives for every new car sold, according to Edmonds.com.

GM sales have fallen so sharply, it's unclear how much more a bankruptcy filing would actually hurt sales, said Mark Oline, auto analyst at Fitch Ratings.

"Whether GM is in or out of bankruptcy, their dealers are already in trouble. So there will be a continuing substantial reduction of GM dealers going forward under any scenario," Oline said.

In fact, a third of GM dealerships could close if the company files for bankruptcy, said Brett Smith, who directs the Automotive Analysis Group at the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich. He said that suburban dealerships would be hit the hardest, while rural dealerships, which face limited competition, are in a better position to survive.

John McEleney, the chairman of the National Automobile Dealers Association, owns two GM dealerships in Iowa. He said used car sales, service departments and faithful returning GM customers have helped him weather the tough economy.

With customers already anxious about GM's future, however, a bankruptcy would only aggravate the problem.

"That would just diminish consumer confidence further and make it harder to get financing for retail buyers and for dealers who need inventory financing. So I think it's fraught with problems," McEleney said.

A GM bankruptcy would likely force more auto parts suppliers out of business, as well.

Since auto parts are sold to manufacturers on credit, many suppliers fear they'll take a "haircut," receiving only pennies on the dollar for parts already shipped to GM, said Bob McKenna, the president of the Motor & Equipment Manufacturers Association.

"That's a significant hit," McKenna said. "That money has already been spent. Employees were paid to make the product, and now they're just waiting to get paid for it, so you can imagine how that must be."

Suppliers typically can borrow against their unpaid accounts, but jittery lenders have been reluctant to make those loans during the recession.

Last year, 40 parts suppliers filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. About a third are in imminent financial distress, with another third expecting to be in the same situation by the end of the first quarter, according to a recent survey of association members.

Two Michigan-based auto suppliers, Visteon Corp. of Van Buren Township and Lear Corp. of Southfield, are on Moody's list of companies at the highest risk of default.

To keep auto parts flowing to troubled manufacturers, the Obama administration this month provided $2 billion to GM and $1.5 billion to Chrysler to serve as a guarantee on their unpaid parts shipments.

GM hopes it works.

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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