Plant transplants adapt

Published: May 2, 2010 3:00 a.m.

Plant transplants adapt

GM arrivals endure separation, marathon commutes

Dan Stockman
The Journal Gazette
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Laura J. Gardner | The Journal Gazette

Audrey Young-Miller is among hundreds of GM employees transferring to Allen County from plants across the U.S. She has found an apartment and is starting to unpack a few boxes.

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Clint Keller | The Journal Gazette

Alan Petree, who transferred from Spring Hill, Tenn., lives in an extended-stay hotel and communicates with his wife online while he waits for her to move to Fort Wayne.

On the road again
Audrey Young-Miller

 

Like many of the new workers at General Motors’ Fort Wayne truck assembly plant who have transferred here from plants that have closed or cut back drastically, Young-Miller has a commute of hundreds of miles.

Here’s a look at a typical weekend:

On Friday afternoon, after a long week of work, she clocks out and hits the road. Her 416-mile journey home will take her through Indianapolis, across Kentucky, and finally – after 6 1/2 hours – home to Nashville, Tenn., arriving about 9 p.m. Nashville time.

She spends the weekend with her husband and two teens, cooking and packing a few boxes of things to take back with her.

By 1 p.m. Sunday, she’s heading out again – it’s a long drive, and she has to be to work at 6 a.m. Monday.

After another week of work, she’ll do it all over again – but is glad to have the chance.

 

For one, it’s not being able to tuck her 3-year-old son into bed at night. For another, it’s not being able to keep tabs on her teenagers. And for another, it’s his first time away from his wife of 32 years.

 

But for all of them, it’s also about the job. A good job.

 

In September, General Motors announced it would add a third shift to its truck assembly plant near Roanoke, bringing about 1,000 new jobs to the plant. The announcement buoyed hopes for a turnaround in Fort Wayne’s manufacturing sector, even after officials said that all of the jobs would go to workers laid off from other plants.

 

GM filed for bankruptcy last year, closed 14 factories and cut more than 65,000 jobs in the United States, paring back its domestic workforce to about 40,000 hourly workers. Instead of being ravaged by the cuts, Fort Wayne gained, and the factory now has its highest number of workers ever.

 

In January, workers started transferring to the Fort Wayne plant, dozens at a time, from as far away as New York and Texas.

 

And because the news that they had a job was often sudden, many of them have left their families behind while they prepare to sell houses, let children finish the school year or contemplate a move to a new state.

 

Here are three of their stories:

‘Making a life here’

Audrey Young-Miller was laid off from GM’s Spring Hill, Tenn., plant the day before Thanksgiving. When she applied for a position in Fort Wayne, she heard back just a week later – in a letter telling her she would start work here in two weeks.

 

She made the 416-mile drive from Nashville, found a hotel, started work and looked for an apartment. Five days later, she made the long drive home, returning to her husband, two teenagers and their dog about 9 p.m. Friday night.

 

By 1 p.m. Sunday, though, it was time to head back to Fort Wayne so she could be to work at 6 a.m. Monday, securing seats in new Silverados and Sierras. That evening, she got her apartment and started unpacking dishes.

 

“It’s like, oh, I forgot shower curtain hooks. Oh, I forgot a garbage can. Oh, I forgot a broom,” she said as she looked around the empty living room of her new apartment. “The first few nights were pretty rough. It’s very hard on Mom – being a mom is all I know.

 

“That first night, I was, ‘I wanna go home.’ ”

 

Now, it’s up to Dad to keep an eye on 17-year-old Marvin and 19-year-old Mara. And for the foreseeable future, that 6 1/2 -hour drive each way for five days of work is going to be necessary: Marvin’s a junior in high school and wants to graduate with his friends.

 

Still, the move has opened new possibilities, too. Marvin had been limiting his college search to schools in Tennessee. Not anymore. Mara, a music composition major, is now considering Indiana University for her master’s degree.

 

“I’m actually now looking forward to making a life here,” Young-Miller said.

‘It’s kinda scary’

The drive isn’t nearly as long each way for Sunny West, but by the end of the week she has driven the equivalent of a Fort Wayne-to-Nashville trip: West drives 65 miles each way from Kokomo every day to work here.

 

It’s only an hour and 15 minutes, “but when you have to get up at 3 a.m., it’s rough,” she said. “I get about four hours with my kids.”

 

A single mom, West has a 21-year-old, a 15-year-old and a 3-year-old at home.

 

“My 3-year-old, I have to take him every night to spend the night with grandma,” she said. “That’s pretty hard that I don’t get to put him to bed.”

 

Still, it’s better than the alternative. Her wages in Kokomo had been cut and her benefits eliminated, so the drive to Fort Wayne is worth it – the average GM production worker earns $32 an hour, according to the Center for Automotive Research. But it’s still a long drive.

 

“It’s kinda scary at 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning, when semis are coming into your lane. … I don’t get enough sleep. You really feel it on the highway – you do whatever it takes to keep yourself awake,” she said. “The long commute is hard, but it’s worth it to have the job security, to have my pay and benefits back and not having to go to another state.”

‘Painful and joyful’

Alan Petree knows what it’s like to move to another state, having followed a GM job years ago from Detroit to Spring Hill, Tenn., to work for Saturn. But Saturn is no more, and this time the move has separated him from his wife of 32 years. He’s living at an extended-stay hotel until his wife – a teacher – finishes the school year, finds a new job here, and they can sell their house.

 

Despite the difficulties, the people he’s met here have made it much easier. He talked inside the United Auto Workers Local 2209 Union Hall, in the lobby area where three banquet tables were covered with literature from businesses eager to welcome the new workers, as well.

 

Banks, apartment complexes, churches, real estate agents, credit unions, title companies, insurance agencies and Comcast cable all had materials available. One brochure box, labeled “Free! Take One,” was empty, but the poster above it still said, “Consider Decatur for your new home.”

 

“A real estate agent offered to spend a whole day showing my wife around, helping her look at apartment complexes,” Petree said. “And we might not be looking for a house for months – if ever. That’s refreshing, because this is tough. We’ve been married 32 years and I’ve never been away, and now I can only get back once a month.”

 

Petree acknowledges that not all GM workers are happy – union officials worried that workers interviewed for this story might be negative about having to move – but he said the ones that really are mad are the ones without jobs, despite doing everything they could for the company.

 

“We did everything GM asked us to do” at Saturn, Petree said, but GM killed off the brand and moved almost all of the work out of Spring Hill.

 

“But I’m thankful for this chance,” he said. “A lot of people don’t have jobs, and a lot of people have jobs that don’t pay anything.”

 

That seems to be the crux of the matter for many of the new workers – a mix of being grateful, frightened, thankful and lonely all at the same time. Petree’s wife has 15 years at her job, but she plans to give it up to move here with him.

 

“You realize what’s important to you,” he said. “It’s painful and joyful all at once.”

 

And, of course, though they’re far away, there’s family. Petree chokes up when he talks about his grandchildren.

 

“I have a grandson, who’s 6, say, ‘I won’t hate you, Grandpa, if you have to move for your job,’ ” he said. “Me and Grammy are gonna burn up the highway every chance we get.”

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