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Defense cuts may add to growing unemployment lines

Jason Rhoads landed a job last summer that seemed secure enough to support his young family through the recession — building military planes for the nation's largest defense contractor.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Jason Rhoads landed a job last summer that seemed secure enough to support his young family through the recession — building military planes for the nation's largest defense contractor.

He joined 7,000 workers at Lockheed Martin's massive plant in this Atlanta suburb, assembling aircraft for the Pentagon, such as the C-130J cargo plane and the futuristic F-22 Raptor.

Now Rhoads, who has a 21-month-old son and a pregnant wife, wonders if he might be headed for unemployment as the Defense Department seeks to scrap or reduce some of its costliest weapons programs, including the F-22 fighter.

"I just figured you kind of worked for the government, so it's more secure," said Rhoads, who earns $15-an-hour, plus overtime, as a crane operator moving wing panels for the C-130J and routing parts to workers assembling F-22s. "I just wonder, what would I do? File unemployment and make cash under the table mowing lawns and stuff?"

Defense Secretary Robert Gates' proposed cuts, announced this week, mean uncertainty for workers in an industry many assumed was safe as long as the nation remained at war. While the proposed $534 billion defense budget adds $21 billion to spending in 2009 and some contractors could gain, thousands of defense workers may join growing jobless lines.

Of course, the potential pain depends whether members of Congress, with jobs in their districts at stake, will go for Gates' plan.

Some lawmakers are voicing opposition, and analysts doubt Congress will agree to cut big programs when unemployment is already high. And many defense workers are politically active through unions such as the International Association of Machinists Local 709 in Marietta, which has a "Vote Obama" poster behind the front desk.

"There are certain policy decisions Congress has a say so in, and we are going to have a say," Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee who has advocated buying more of the F-22 jets, said this week.

The Marietta union's president, Jeff Goen, said layoffs of F-22 workers will be inevitable if Congress doesn't intervene, though he's not sure how many or how soon. A Lockheed spokesman said the company was still evaluating Gates' budget cuts and could not comment on potential job losses.

Gates wants to move away from some big equipment for conventional wars, like armored vehicles for the Army, the radar-evading F-22 and a stealthy Navy destroyer. Those programs employ thousands at defense contractor shipyards and assembly lines.

The new focus on fighting insurgents in places like Afghanistan means spending on high-tech tools, work that demands computer programers as much as assembly line workers. For example, Gates wants to spend $2 billion on unmanned drones.

Lockheed has about 2,000 workers on the F-22 in Marietta, where the supersonic fighters soar and bank above the sprawling plant, leaving a thunderous rumble in their wake.

Bethesda, Md.-based Lockheed Martin Corp. has said 95,000 jobs at various sites could be lost by scuttling the F-22, touted as the world's most advanced jet fighter with a price tag of $140 million apiece.

The Obama administration wants to discontinue the F-22 after 187 planes already planned are completed in late 2011. Lockheed had hoped to build 20 additional jets. The F-22 program was launched in the 1980s to guarantee U.S. air superiority over the Soviets but has never seen combat.

Lockheed — the lead F-22 contractor — has said shutting down production in Marietta and Fort Worth, Texas, could cost 25,000 jobs at the company and its major suppliers. Chicago-based Boeing Co. manufactures the wings and other parts in Seattle. The fighter's supersonic engines are supplied by Pratt & Whitney in Middletown, Conn.

Loren Thompson, a defense analyst with the Lexington Institute, said Lockheed's claim of how many F-22 jobs would be directly affected appear to be accurate.

Other cities with large defense manufacturers are nervously eyeing other proposed cuts by Gates, including the giant C-17 cargo plane used since 1991 to airlift heavy equipment and troops.

The C-17 is responsible for 30,000 jobs — nearly 7,000 Boeing jobs and the rest among 700 supplier companies in 43 states, Boeing spokesman Jerry Drelling said. In St. Louis, about 1,000 Boeing workers and nearly an equal number of workers at supplier companies work on the C-17.

Civic leaders said that if those jobs were lost, it would be chilling for a region that has already lost several thousand high-paying autoworker jobs over the past three years as a Ford plant closed and Chrysler made drastic reductions.

"It would be a very serious challenge for the St. Louis economy and have a very significant impact," said Richard C.D. Fleming, president and CEO of the St. Louis Regional Chamber and Growth Association.

Marietta employees say they're hopeful many F-22 assembly line workers could shift over to the C-130J. Lockheed is in the process of speeding up production of the hulking cargo planes, which it has built in various incarnations since the 1950s, from one to three planes per months.

"If we weren't ramping up on the C-130, we'd need to close the doors," said Leonard Walton, 53, who works on the F-22 assembly line adding final touches to the planes.

While still deemed important, Lockheed is no longer quite the economic pillar of Marietta and surrounding Cobb County that it was decades ago.

The local Chamber of Commerce said Lockheed employed 35,000 workers here in the 1970s, about 60 percent of the county's work force. After several rounds of layoffs, coupled with Cobb County's threefold growth to more than 600,000 people, the defense contractor now employs only about 1.5 percent of workers in Georgia's third-largest county, Beaver said.

The Lockheed workers are well paid, with seasoned assembly line workers earning $60,000 to $75,000 a year, said Tim Parker, a Lockheed machinist who lobbies for the Marietta union. Nobody wants to see those jobs added to Cobb County's 8.2 percent unemployment rate, fueled in large part by faltering homebuilders and construction companies.

"It does not help the morale or the mood of the community at all saying there's a mainstay of the economy that may lose 2,000 jobs," Marietta Mayor Bill Dunaway said.

Rob Feller agrees. He's the marketing manager for a Harley-Davidson dealership about a mile from the Lockheed plant.

The lot's long rows of motorcycles with polished chrome draw a fair number of assembly line workers with an inherent appreciation for fast and flashy machines.

"There's a bunch of them that ride, and a lot of them bought from us," Feller said. "This couldn't have come at a worse time."


AP Business Writer Stephen Manning in Washington and Associated Press writers Cheryl Wittenauer, Betsy Taylor and Jim Salter in St. Louis contributed to this report.


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