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Idle GM Plant Forces Workers to Regroup

Idle GM Plant Forces Workers to Regroup (transcript)

Tuesday, November 24th, 2009

By Blake Farmer
Two-thousand General Motors employees will lose their jobs this week as the company idles most of its operation in Spring Hill tomorrow. Many of those displaced workers are faced with a choice: try to transfer to Michigan or test the job market here at home. WPLN’s Blake Farmer has this story.

Audio for this feature is available here.

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STRING: “You ready to go man? Time to meet momma.”

Coty String buckles in his one-year-old son before making the handoff to his wife. Then he and his longtime colleagues at GM Spring Hill will punch the clock on their last Friday working second shift installing window glass on the Chevy Traverse.

STRING: “It’s almost about equal to dying, so this may be the last time we all see each other in our lifetime.”

String moved to Tennessee 20 years ago from Flint, Michigan. Now he’s put in to transfer up north, leaving six grown children behind.

STRING: “I want to stay, but I’m going to end up going…I mean I still have bills to pay. The majority of us, we only know how to build cars.”

Like so many, String is too young to retire and too old to do anything else, at least, he says, if he wants to keep the lifestyle his family has grown accustomed to.

The state has poured more than a million dollars into helping transition workers to new careers in growth industries like healthcare. But 57-year-old Bill Beasley says becoming something like a nurse just isn’t practical.

REPORTER: “You’re saying you’re a little too old to go become a nurse and start nursing when you’re sixty.”

BEASLEY: “Right, I may be on the other end. Somebody may be nursing me when I’m 60.”

Beasley has decided to stick it out in Spring Hill, though he’s not sure how he’ll make a living.

BEASLEY: “With age comes experience. I’ve learned not to freak out. There’s something out there. I’m more worried about my son works for Penske.”

REPORTER: “Because they’re one of the suppliers, right?”

BEASLEY: “One of the suppliers there.”

REPORTER: “And they don’t quite have the safety net you have…”

BEASLEY: “No they don’t.”

The 2,000 GM employees will get at least a year of severance pay. Suppliers aren’t so lucky. And the county estimates just as many supply jobs will vanish as GM Spring Hill goes idle.

Workers here have been through layoffs before. The most recent was to transition from making Saturns to Chevys. Now, Spring Hill mayor Michael Dinwiddie says nothing’s on the horizon.

DINWIDDIE: “It could be six months. It could be six years. We just don’t know. It’s that uncertainty that’s probably driving people to do whatever is necessary.”

It drove the mayor to take a temp job at the plant ahead of the shutdown.

DINWIDDIE: “I felt that one of the best ways I could support them is to be with them side by side when it happens.”

At a recent UAW meeting, union members get a kick out of Dinwiddie’s rookie aches and pains.

DINWIDDIE: “I have to physically open my pinky with my other hand, just from holding that rivet gun.”

The job can take a toll on the body. For a select few, ending a career with GM lit a fire under them to do something entirely new.

PARENT: “My way out was really lift off.”

Donald Parent was a salaried employee recently let go as part of GM’s reorganization.

PARENT: “This is a poster that spans 25 years, and this is where my business idea is.”

The former GM analyst unrolls a timeline of the rise and fall of the Saturn brand, which got its start in Spring Hill. Parent wants to build a tourist attraction for any remaining Saturn fanatics. The spark for his idea came in an entrepreneurship class run by Jan McKeel.

MCKEEL: “We see many people choose to start from scratch and I just admire them so much.”

But they’re the exception, not the rule. McKeel runs Maury County’s career center and expects to be busier than ever in the next few months.

MCKEEL: “It would not surprise me if we nip right at 20% unemployment.”

Most of GM’s employees in Spring Hill relocated to Tennessee two decades ago. Now the prospect of one in five residents being without a job may send them packing for Michigan.

For Nashville Public Radio, I’m Blake Farmer.

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