Thousands of GM workers at soon-to-be closed U.S. plants face 'a lot of uncertainty'

"It’s emotionally devastating,” one worker at a Michigan plant said of watching some co-workers leave to transfer to other plants, some as far as Tennessee.

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By Corky Siemaszko

In the nine years they worked side-by-side installing lithium ion batteries into Chevy Volts, Evetta Osborne and daughter Monique Watson developed an assembly-line choreography.

“Watching them work is like watching ballet,” an internal GM story said.

Now, mass layoffs underway at GM threaten to break up the mother-daughter autoworker duo by shuttering the Michigan manufacturing plant where they work — the Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly facility, which employs roughly 1,500 workers.

In total, GM is planning to send pink slips to lay off more than 14,000 workers and close three assembly plants and two component factories in North America by the end of 2019. It began the layoffs of some of its salaried workers on Monday.

The sweeping plan approved by GM chief Mary Barra is expected to save the automaker billions of dollars — and provide a cushion ahead of a forecast slowdown of the U.S. automotive market in the next few years.

But for thousands of American workers like Osborne and Watson, when the last car rolls down the line at their plant on June 1, they will likely be faced with two choices, both bad — accept a transfer to another plant far from their families and homes in Detroit, or start over in a new profession.

“I can’t see me going nowhere else,” Osborne, 52, who has worked for GM since 2000, told NBC News. “This is my home. I’m going to wait and pray that GM will give us a new product to build and our jobs will be saved.”

Watson, 33, who started working at the plant in 2007, said she’s been putting off having the “relocation conversation” with her husband and their four children.

“My youngest is on the autism spectrum and my entire support system is here,” Watson said. “There’s a lot of people at the plant like us who have children to take care of, who have elderly parents.”

Plus, both mother and daughter said, their roots in Detroit are deep.

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“My grandparents came to Detroit from the South to work for the auto industry,” Watson said. “My mother’s father retired from GM. Basically, a lot of family members worked for the Big Three.”

Osborne said her son worked at the plant, and he left in August for a job at a GM plant in Tennessee. “He likes it so far, but it’s eight hours away from me,” she said.

“We just had a group of workers leave to go to jobs in Flint and Tennessee,” Watson said. “There were a lot of tears shed. You can’t work with people every day for five, 10, 20 years and not get close. It’s emotionally devastating.”

In recent weeks, President Donald Trump — under pressure from many blue-collar workers whose votes propelled him into the White House —has criticized Barra for the plant closings.

But nobody at the Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly is counting on Trump to save their jobs, said Celso Duque, president of Local Union 22 of the United Auto Workers, which represents workers at the plant.

“I keep thinking about Carrier, about how he kept saying during that campaign that he was going to save those jobs and how it turned out he just got them to delay laying off people until after the election,” Duque said, referring to Trump. “There’s quite a few people here who remember that.”

Not so long ago, union workers assembled cars like the Chevrolet Impala, the Cadillac CT6, and the Buick LaCrosse at the plant in addition to Volts, said Duque, who has worked for GM for nearly 22 years.

“Now there’s a lot of uncertainty on the floor,” he said. “Right now, all we can do is put transfers in for people to other facilities.”

Even with transfers, workers' lives can be upended.

“I heard of a situation of a husband and wife who asked for transfers,” he said. “One got accepted at a plant in Flint, Michigan. The other got a transfer to a plant in Tonawanda, New York.”

"I have not heard that," GM spokesman Dan Flores told NBC News on Tuesday, when asked about the supposedly star-crossed autoworker couple.

But Flores confirmed that 409 manufacturing workers from the Detroit-Hamtramck plant have accepted transfers to the GM plant in Flint, Michigan, which is about 70 miles north of Motown.

Duque, who is 41, said his future is also uncertain. He said he’s not married, but he’s got elderly parents nearby whom he helps care for.

“I’m hoping to stay in Michigan,” he said. “Personally, the biggest issue I would have is that I bought my house at the height of the housing bubble. My house is now almost paid off. If I had to sell it now, I’d be losing $120,000.”

The targeted GM plant straddles the border between Detroit and Hamtramck, a small city completely surrounded by Motown. Its first vehicle — a Cadillac Eldorado — rolled off the line in February 1985.

But the plant had a bitter birth.

Much of the 362-acre site was built on what used to be a Polish immigrant neighborhood called Poletown, whose residents fought a fierce but losing battle against then-Detroit Mayor Coleman Young to avoid being evicted from their homes.

Young, however, was unable to evict the more than 1,000 Jews buried at the Beth Olam Cemetery, which is in the northwest corner of the property and is completely surrounded by the auto plant. It’s open to the public just two days a year, on the Sundays before Rosh Hashannah and Passover.