As a 10-year-old, Rollin Green was awestruck when he saw the line of hulking orange-and-silver robotic arms swinging with rhythmic precision during his first visit to an auto plant. But something impressed him even more: His dad worked there.
As a fifth grader, Rollin didn't daydream about becoming a baseball player or an astronaut. He wanted to be an autoworker. Just like his father, Mike.
And grandfather, Richard. And great-grandfather, Kenneth.
And grandmother, Janice. And step-grandmother, Connie. And aunt, Cindy. And great uncles, Bob and Tom, among others.
Over seven decades and four generations, the Greens have together poured nearly 300 years into building Chevys, Oldsmobiles, Buicks, Pontiacs and Cadillacs. They've shared holidays, deer hunting blinds, even the same 160-acre patch of land 25 miles away (they jokingly call it 'Green Acres'). They've traveled the same path with almost clockwork precision — making a beeline from high school graduation to a General Motors plant.
Through layoffs and strikes, births and deaths, boom times and bust, the family survived — and thrived — thanks to autos.
With GM's future uncertain — the automaker received $13.4 billion in rescue loans and faces a Feb. 17 restructuring plan deadline — Rollin Green may represent the end of the line.
After just six months at the Cadillac plant, Rollin was recently laid off. It wasn't unexpected, but that didn't make it any easier as he drove his Chevy truck out of the lot.
"It's tough," he says, studying a photo of four generations of Greens (and GM workers) as he sits in the office of his father, the president of United Auto Workers Local 652. "It's always been the family business. A great-paying job, with great benefits, close to home. It was pretty much everything I ever wanted. ... It's provided me with whatever I had growing up."
Straight out of high school, Rollin grabbed a job at a GM plant. With overtime and night shifts, he earned $37,000 in about nine months. Four years later, he bought a four-bedroom house. Now 23, he still holds out hope of returning — hope that "things turn around. I'd like to be there to see it happen."
The next few months, he figures, will determine his future — as well as that of GM.
‘It's been coming a long time’
The story of the Green family offers a glimpse into the ups and downs of the American auto industry over a half-century — from symbol of the nation's industrial might to the brink of collapse.
The Greens were around when GM was on top of the world, when Toyotas and Hondas were not yet part of the lexicon, much less a fixture on the nation's highways. They built Cutlasses, Skylarks and Grand Ams, they bought Camaros and Silverados, their union grew stronger, their paychecks got bigger.
But they were there, too, when the energy crisis took hold, the demand for smaller cars increased, foreign automakers started building plants in this country — and buying American lost its luster.
Today, as GM fights for survival, the Greens are emblematic of so many autoworkers who worry about the future and mull over the mistakes of the past — even as they acknowledge they're not completely surprised by the latest turn of events.
"It's been coming a long time, I saw it 25 years ago," declares Richard Green, who spent nearly 40 years at GM and the UAW before retiring in 1993. "I remember watching some small plants going under, wondering if it could happen to us. I thought it would and it did."
Some nights, he says, his mind races thinking about all that went wrong.
"There's enough blame to go around," the 73-year-old Green says slowly, choosing his words carefully. "The quality dropped. We lost the loyalty of the customers. They stand for the national anthem, but they're not as patriotic as they should be. A lot of people will wave the flag ... but not buy an American-made car. If they can save 2 cents on an item made in China, they'll save that 2 cents."
His wife, Connie, another former GM worker, sees the problem through a wider lens.
"I wish I could come up with some magic solution to start building things here," she says. "I know it's a global economy, but I'm still old-fashioned enough to want to be able to take care of ourselves. ... Steel's gone. Textiles gone. And now autos."
The auto industry still employs hundreds of thousands of workers in this country, with much of the growth coming from foreign carmakers based in the nonunion South. One sign of the times: UAW membership, which peaked at 1.5 million in 1979, was about 465,000 by the end of 2007 — the first drop below a half-million since World War II.
As the Big Three carmakers slashed their workforce by about 40 percent — to about 241,000 — from 2001 to 2007, foreign automakers in the United States boosted employment by nearly a third, to more than 113,000, according to the Center for Automotive Research.
And while 2008 was a miserable year all around for automakers, GM marked its centennial in a sea of red ink: Shares plunged 87 percent. More than $21 billion in losses were recorded in the first three quarters. And car sales were at their worst in almost half a century.
"Being a blue-collar worker in a highly competitive environment is not a very pleasant place to be in a world that has gone flat," says Douglas Baird, a University of Chicago Law School professor and bankruptcy specialist who follows the industry. "Auto assembly-line jobs don't put you on the trajectory to the middle class anymore."
"The way the economy has evolved does not reward people who do those jobs," he adds. "It's not fair. It's not nice. Thirty years ago, the autoworkers could have shared in the prosperity. But GM is a shrinking ice cube."
‘A job for life’
The opportunities seemed boundless when Kenneth Green, Rollin's great-grandfather, started the family tradition toward the end of World War II.
At the time, automakers were phasing out of their wartime conversion that had turned car factories into defense plants, producing guns and bombs, tanks and planes and giving Detroit the nickname "arsenal of democracy."
Kenneth Green, a tall, bony, cribbage-loving, Detroit Tigers fan left his family's farm outside the village of Morrice — where they raised cattle and produced peppermint — and traveled about 25 miles to a new adventure in the city.
He became a tool and die maker at Oldsmobile, joining the UAW at a time when a labor agreement could be summed up in a pocket-size brochure. Today, the national contract is 716 pages.
When his son, Richard, turned 18, there were no heart-to-heart, career-direction discussions. He followed his dad's career, breaking only for a stint in the Marines.
At Oldsmobile, Richard's starting salary was about $2 an hour. Gas, though, was just 23 cents a gallon. And he was part of a corporation so powerful that former GM chief Charles Wilson famously summed it up this way: "What's good for the country is good for General Motors and vice versa."
For Richard, a father of three and dyed-in-the-wool Democrat who later became a full-time UAW official, being an autoworker back then had one major attraction: security.
"If you went to work here, you were a good employee and you did things right, you'd have a job for life," he says. "My kids never had to worry about their next meal. I never thought about leaving."
Today, the elder Green, solemn-faced with a thatch of silver hair, snow-white mustache and glasses, remembers an era when Americans could carry their lunch buckets to the same factory their entire working lives.
He moved up from the assembly line to skilled tradesman. He bought an RV and took his family on vacations on both coasts. GM offered a ticket to the comforts of middle-class life.
‘The golden years’
"The '50s and '60s were the golden years," says Mike Smith, director of the Walter Reuther Library at Wayne State University. "The autoworker was the industrial elite of the manufacturing world."
Autoworkers earned more than teachers, even some professors. The UAW negotiated enviable contracts. Pensions. Health care. Seniority. Some of these generous benefits would saddle the automakers with enormous "legacy" costs 50 years later.
The UAW was a force, too, in American politics. Its charismatic leader, Walter Reuther, turned his office into a bully pulpit for social change, wielding influence from the White House to the streets, where he marched with Martin Luther King Jr. Nearly 40 years later, Reuther's photo hangs in Mike Green's office.
Even as GM prospered, the first wave of smaller, foreign cars began appearing on the nation's highways. Among them: Japanese-made autos and the Volkswagen Beetle, a curiosity at the time.
Most Americans, though, still subscribed to the bigger-is-better school, as the bass-mouth grills and long tail fins of the '50s gave way to muscle cars with huge engines a decade later.
"Cars were powerful," Smith says. "Gas mileage did not matter. Cheap gas was readily available."
The 1970s forever shifted the landscape when an oil embargo suddenly created long lines at the gas pump. Americans turned to small, fuel-efficient Hondas, Datsuns and Toyotas, now readily available.
"There was a certain amount of hubris among the automakers," Smith says. "They got complacent."
When they scrambled to catch up, some of their early efforts were flops, even disasters — the Ford Pinto and Chevy Vega. Smith, who was a mechanic at the time, recalls that "every time I saw a Vega come in the door, I cringed."
By the late '70s, one of the Big Three was in deep trouble: Chrysler Corp. needed a federal loan to stave off bankruptcy.
GM, though, still seemed secure enough for a third generation of Greens.
‘You took pride in what you did’
Richard Green's daughter, Cindy DeLau, was so sure of it, she chose the assembly line over a college campus in 1977.
Her brother, Mike Green, followed 10 months later at age 17, just weeks after getting his high school diploma. College wasn't an option; he jokes he was the kind of kid who'd get off the school bus without books.
He considered himself lucky, earning $7 an hour, piling up overtime, sometimes working seven-day weeks. Autos were the family business and he didn't want to do anything to jeopardize that.
"You wouldn't want to let your family down when your grandfather worked there, your father worked there," Mike says. "You took pride in what you did. ...I also remember some of the old-timers would say, 'You've got three days to learn this job.' You don't learn it, they'd bring you over to this swinging window, open it and people would be lined up and they'd say, 'If you don't want to do it, one of these guys will.' "
He eventually moved into a full-time union job. Today, the 48-year-old UAW local president, a husky man with a salt-and-pepper goatee has an easygoing presence whether he's mingling with bingo-playing GM retirees or reminiscing with his father about all the changes they've seen.
One of the most dramatic changes — the fast-growing popularity of Japanese autos — caught him a bit by surprise.
"I never really saw it as a threat," Mike Green says. "It was a given: 'Hey, we build GM and people are going to buy it.' "
His sister, Cindy, says it first hit her when she vacationed in California and saw so many foreign cars.
"I guess it was a shock," she says. "I was in a GM town. Everyone worked and drove GM. Driving from a small town like I did, only traveling 35 miles to my job, I didn't realize outside of my comfort circle what was happening."
As foreign car makers started building plants on American soil, Mike Green's UAW and the U.S. companies started working as partners. It was a matter of survival.
"Both sides had to realize they can put their head in the sand and I can do the same and you're not going to get anywhere," he says.
But cooperation could only do so much in the '90s.
Technology — advances in robotics and computers — had made it possible for auto plants to be as productive as they were in 1970s with just a third of the workers, says Smith, the auto historian.
The public also was buying more foreign-brand cars — they accounted for more than half those sold in this country in 2008, according to the Center for Automotive Research.
Even a respite from the gloom — the explosion in sales of American-made sport utility vehicles — hit a wall last summer when gas prices soared to $4.50 a gallon as the economy sank deeper into recession.
"They say, 'You built gas guzzlers,'" Green says. "But that's what people wanted." (He also points out that GM built many fuel-efficient cars.)
Smith says there's some truth to what Green says. He notes many foreign automakers started building SUVs and heavy trucks.
"It's no different from making hula hoops," he says. "If they sell, you start making them."
‘There's just a lot of jobs we lost’
Mike Green's UAW office is decorated with mementoes chronicling his family's long history in the auto industry.
He has his grandfather's 10- and 15-year service pins in jewelry boxes. He has a brick from the former Oldsmobile headquarters known as "the marble palace," located on the same site where the last Olds Alero rolled off the line in 2004, the factory where he and his dad once worked.
So much has changed. Green's UAW local boasted about 15,000 members in the late 1970s. "Now, we're down to 3,000," he says. "There's just a lot of jobs we lost. It's devastating."
As a longtime witness to GM's highs and lows, though, he knows nothing is permanent. When he heard a few weeks ago that GM had been dethroned by Toyota as the No. 1 seller of cars and trucks worldwide, he took it almost as a personal challenge.
"It took our darkest days before they could overtake us," he says. "We'll be back."
As a union leader, Green is waiting to see what happens with the government's multibillion dollar rescue and the turnaround plan. "It burns me when I hear bailout," he says. "It's a loan. The banks got bailed out. They don't build anything. We build something."
As a father, he's thinking, too, about his son's future, knowing the fourth generation of Greens to work at GM may well be the last. He says he tried to push Rollin toward college.
"I've always said, 'Rollin ... if Plan A doesn't work out, what's Plan B? You've got to have that, son.' That's one of the things he didn't want to look at," he says. "Well, I'm sure he's looking at it a little harder now."
It's possible, he says, Rollin will have to move away to find work, nearly 70 years after his great-grandfather left his farm to start the family's autoworking tradition.
"He'd be the first in the family to go somewhere," he adds. "It's sad. A father likes to have his children close ... but those days are numbered."