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Layoffs, closings turn autoworkers into nomads

To keep jobs in once-stable industry, 'GM gypsies' uproot time and again
"I'm always getting ready to leave. Some GM workers just keep their stuff in boxes," says Tom Hoppe, a 28-year GM worker and self-described "gypsy."Carlos Osorio / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Tom Hoppe was raised the son of an autoworker, the great grandson of another. And when he graduated high school, it seemed natural Hoppe would join his classmates and find steady work on the production line, too. But in recent years, Hoppe hasn't so much held a steady job as chased a moving target.

As the world's largest automaker has grown ever smaller — closing plants, cutting shifts and eliminating jobs — Hoppe has moved seven times from factory to factory, in pursuit of a paycheck and a pension.

Hoppe and thousands of workers like him call themselves "GM Gypsies." And with General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co. set to close factories again, many of the workers who remain on board may well have to follow their migratory lead. But will there be enough jobs left for them?

"I'm always getting ready to leave. Some GM workers just keep their stuff in boxes," says Hoppe, a 28-year GM veteran who expects his current job at a plant in Lake Orion, Mich. to be cut this spring when production is scaled back. "You never know."

The uncertainty now built into a job on GM and Ford assembly lines was once all but unimaginable. Many GM Gypsies, and their Ford counterparts, are the sons and daughters of auto workers who toiled until retirement at a single plant and promised their children they'd be able to do the same.

"People looked at jobs in the auto plants like property, like something that they owned, something that could be passed down from father to sons," said Gary Chaison, a professor of industrial relations at Clark University. "That was pretty much making it for a lot of people."

That changed for good in the 1980s when GM, and Ford to a lesser extent, went through wrenching changes, closing plants and revamping manufacturing technology. In the past 20 years, GM and spun-off parts supplier Delphi Corp. have closed 110 plants (while opening 34 new ones) and eliminated more than 300,000 hourly jobs, mostly through attrition, said Sean McAlinden, chief economist with the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Hitting the road
Workers hit the road to hold on to prized jobs. Over the past two decades, McAlinden estimates 80,000 GM production workers have moved at least 300 miles to take a new job with the automaker.

While such moves are common for white-collar workers, they have resulted in dramatic and sometimes uneasy changes for many production workers, uprooting families, stretching commutes to hours and causing tensions on assembly lines between transplants and oldtimers.

To ease the strain, the United Auto Workers union won benefits for workers whose jobs are eliminated, granting substantial incentives both to relocate for jobs in distant plants, as well as to stay put.

But the union's contracts with GM and Ford expire in the fall of 2007, fueling widespread doubt about whether those benefits will remain intact.

Workers and labor experts expect the automakers to push to eliminate the "jobs bank" program that continues paying laid-off auto workers after their plants close.

Meanwhile, GM plans to cut 30,000 jobs by closing plants in cities like St. Louis and Oklahoma City where it has few nearby operations, focusing remaining manufacturing on its Midwest core. The closings and a new contract will likely force many of the workers at those plants to choose between hanging it up or relocating.

"There will be another burst of gypsy moves. GM will have to move another 20,000 to 30,000 in the next two to three years," McAlinden said. "You're really going to have to get a lot of these people to retire or move back to Michigan and Ohio."

As GM moves forward with closings, it will try to convince older workers _ the average GM production worker is just shy of 50 _ to retire. That could lead up to 45,000 people to leave the automaker and create openings, McAlinden said.

But not all observers agree, noting that the unsettling shifts at work in the auto business make it difficult to predict what comes next.

The plant closings could severely limit the choices of many workers, eliminating their own jobs and creating increased uncertainty about the plants and jobs that remain, Chaison said.

"Not only will they (workers) be pushed by plant closings, but the closings will be so widespread that there won't be anything pulling them to another job either," Chaison said.

That situation already faces workers like Doug Branscom, who worked at a GM assembly plant in Baltimore until it closed last May.

Branscom got his start at GM in 1976, when he hired on at a Connecticut plant, doubling the $3 an hour he was making at another factory job. When his shift was eliminated after five years, he worked as a school custodian until a job opened at another GM plant in Framingham, Mass. in 1984.

That job, too, vanished when GM closed the plant three years later. So he became a truck driver for a year. But he returned to the automaker in 1989 when a job opened in Baltimore. The move came a year before the large relocation bonuses took effect, but put him in a place where he finally settled down.

Branscom, now 53, bought a home in a neighborhood of concrete bungalows, originally built by Bethlehem Steel for its workers. He's forged friendships with workers whose moves have paralleled his. A self-described critic of ties between the union and the company, Branscom said he is reluctant to leave for another plant, where his reputation might precede him and make life difficult.

"I'm tired of this gypsying"
When a job opened recently at a GM plant in Kentucky, he passed despite the relocation bonus, hoping instead he gets one of 86 new jobs the automaker is adding at a transmission plant in Baltimore.

"I'm tired of this gypsying for General Motors," he said. "What's to say I go out there and two years later they close that too?"

Hoppe, who has worked for GM since he was 19, also is waiting to see what happens. The autoworker spent years at GM's Willow Run plant in Ypsilanti, Mich. He transferred briefly to a plant in Toledo, Ohio when he was laid off, before returning to Willow Run. That's where he planned to stay, until GM decided otherwise.

"When they closed my plant in 1993, I was building a garage in my backyard and I was finishing up and putting a floor up in the attic," he recalls. "When I heard on the radio they were going to be closing my plant down, I stopped hammering nails right then and I brought the pieces of plywood back to the lumberyard because I knew I was going to be moving."

Hoppe moved with his wife and two children to Spring Hill, Tenn., where GM builds its Saturn models.

They stayed seven years, but moved back to take an assembly job at the Orion plant in 2000 after Hoppe says he "saw the writing on the wall." GM has since announced plans to close one of the Tennessee plant's two production lines.

Assigned to the "jobs bank"
Two years later, the Michigan plant eliminated a shift and Hoppe transferred to a GM truck plant in nearby Pontiac. When his shift was cut there, he was assigned to the "jobs bank" at another GM site in Pontiac. After five months there, a job opened at Orion, where he works installing interiors of Pontiac G6 coupes and sedans.

Hoppe says he expects to lose his current job in April, when the company plans slow production at his plant, setting the stage for a move to a ninth GM location.

The moves have had their pros and cons. Hoppe says the transitions strengthened his marriage because he and his wife grew to depend on each other. But since leaving Tennessee, he's largely avoided forging friendships with co-workers, knowing he's likely to be moving again.

He's fairly confident he'll make it to retirement with GM, given its remaining concentration of plants in Michigan. But that is where the family's connections with GM will likely end, Hoppe says.

"I told my kids from a very young age that: 'Don't count on a job at General Motors because there won't be one,'" he says. "We really are at the end of the line."