Fear fuels wider fight to save GM, auto plants

May 13, 2009

Fear fuels wider fight to save GM, auto plants

BY TODD SPANGLER
FREE PRESS WASHINGTON STAFF

WASHINGTON — Michigan politicians aren’t the only ones banging the drums to keep auto plants open.

On Capitol Hill, in statehouses and at the headquarters for Chrysler LLC and General Motors Corp., the lobbying has reached fever pitch.

Republican Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas was in Detroit last month for the Final Four and hopped a bus to catch up with GM officials at the Renaissance Center, hoping to hear good news about the Fairfax plant in his state that employs 2,500 people.

There’s more: President Barack Obama can’t stop in Missouri without Gov. Jay Nixon talking up the car plants there. In Louisiana, Gov. Bobby Jindal may have doubts about federal stimulus money, but he wants to save GM’s Shreveport plant. And Sen. Tom Carper, a Democrat, is waging a long-shot battle to save a plant that makes Pontiacs and Saturns in Wilmington.

This week, Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, sat down with workers both in Lordstown, where he has been assured GM’s operations are safe, and in Twinsburg, where workers learned two weeks ago that their Chrysler plant is closing.

Yet unknown is how much political will matters as GM is restructured — in or out of bankruptcy.

"I’m not one to take ‘no’ for an answer," Carper said.

• PDF: See which auto plants six non-Michigan lawmakers are fighting to preserve

Leaders lobbying to save jobs, protect communities

Carper has seen this movie before. He just hopes the ending is the same.

In the 1990s, the incoming Delaware governor — now the state’s senior senator — fought to keep General Motors’ Boxwood Road plant from closing. Fifteen years later, it’s on the chopping block again with GM talking about cutting or idling 16 plants, including four assembly plants.

Carper’s pitch: "If GM continues to shrink their footprint in this country, they shouldn’t be surprised when they are in need for support in Congress that the response becomes ever less enthusiastic."

It may be a long shot — the Wilmington plant makes Pontiac and Saturn brands General Motors Corp. expects to get rid of — but the Democratic senator’s efforts and those of others underscore the growing anxiety in auto-affected communities as Chrysler LLC and GM look at deep operational cuts under the watchful eye of President Barack Obama’s auto task force.

 

United in the cause

Democrats and Republicans are involved, and it’s far from confined to Michigan policy makers. Governors, members of Congress, local leaders and businessmen are part of the effort. Carper said that even Vice President Joe Biden has talked with UAW leaders.

This week, GM Chief Executive Officer Fritz Henderson was questioned about dealers’ efforts to have their congressional representatives help them survive. Today, a handful of small suppliers — from Kansas, Indiana, Georgia, Texas and Michigan — will meet with the House Small Business Committee to explain what they’re facing if plants are closed.

"When these firms go under, it can have a ripple effect through the entire auto industry supply chain and the wider economy," said Democratic Rep. Nydia Velázquez of New York, the committee’s chairwoman. And there is a feeling it’s not too late to make a pitch for the local dealer, supplier or car plant in the hopes of saving thousands of jobs, because GM, at least, hasn’t said which plants it will close, and the UAW is pushing to keep capacity in the United States.

 

Is it already too late?

In some quarters, the lobbying has been going on for months, with Washington power brokers meeting with Detroit carmakers or the union and making their case to Obama’s task force leaders — though it is unclear just how much an effect politics could have, if any, in determining which plants survive.

"I would say it’s too late for politics," said James Rubenstein, a geography professor at Miami University in Ohio who specializes in automobile plants. "Saving the company is what comes first now."

That could bode well for plants in the upper Midwest, clustered around a tight network of suppliers, but it won’t stop officials such as Republican Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee from arguing for his state’s Spring Hill plant, saying that in a fair fight, it should survive.

Some plants, it seems, are on solid footing. Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, a Democrat, said he has had assurances that GM’s Lordstown plant will keep making Chevys; the office of Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., said it believes the Fairfax assembly plant outside of Kansas City is safe, too.

But others — like those in Wilmington, Shreveport, La., and Spring Hill — could be in trouble.

 

Even assurances no guarantee

What no one wants is a repeat of what happened two weeks ago as Chrysler’s plan came to light: Officials in Ohio said they had been led to believe — by the president’s task force and the company — that Twinsburg Stamping and its 1,000 workers would be spared.

They weren’t.

Brown was in Twinsburg on Monday, talking to workers and officials.

Said spokeswoman, Meghan Dubyak, "He thinks the workers in Twinsburg need to receive an apology."

Rep. Gary Peters, D-Mich., said that although many members of Congress and local officials understood all along the impact auto industry problems could have on their communities, it is being felt even stronger now, with Chrysler plants idled and GM’s details on plant closures expected within weeks.

"We’ve been saying all along the problems are not about Michigan," the Bloomfield Township lawmaker said. "It touches every state and community."

Carper, for one, said Wilmington’s worth saving because someday, when the economy fully recovers, GM will need that capacity to build cars. And he’s not ready to give up.

"We dodged a bullet 15 years ago because we never gave up," he said.

Clockwise from top left: Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican. All are among lawmakers fighting to keep auto plants in their state open.

Clockwise from top left: Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican. All are among lawmakers fighting to keep auto plants in their state open.

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