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Walking through a Legacy: Flint GM Plant

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Old Flint Picture.jpg

FLINT, Mich.----The GM Flint Assembly plant opened in 1947, when Hal Newhouser won 17 games for the Detroit Tigers and modern homes were being built in Flint's sprawling neighborhoods.
Over the years Flint plant workers have made station wagons, pick up trucks and Chevelles. The Corvette was born in June, 1953 at Chevrolet Plant Number 35, a since-razed facility across the street from the plant. [Sticker price just over $3,000.]


Little Red Corvette - Prince
Today heavy duty crew cabs and and regular cab trucks roll off the line in Flint, 50 miles north of Detroit. In 1975 the plant employed 7,500 people. Today there are less than 1,500 employees (150 management).
General Motors was born in Flint in 1908.
The Flint truck plant is Genesee County's only remaining assembly plant.
Plant tours are open to the public. One of the tour guidelines is to look at workers in the eye, especially those who drive scooters and bicycles (in a time sensitive maneuver skilled trade workers ride bikes to fix a glitch on the line) around the 159-acre facility.
They have the right of way.
In those worker's eyes I saw some hope. Apprehension for sure. Pride. Maybe despair, or perhaps they were just Detroit Lions fans. These eyes sparkled like string lights on an empty patio.............

After GM filed for bankruptcy in June (the second largest industrial bankruptcy in American history) , President Obama called the U.S. auto industry "an emblem of the American spirit."
I toured the plant as a representative of a feisty newspaper that is trucking through bankruptcy. My guide was Bob Hooks, joint activity coordinator at GM/Flint. Hooks, 57, is a third-generation union man at the plant (UAW Local 598). His father Lester worked on the line. I was accompanied by Matt Bach, the new public relations manager for the Flint Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. In February his job as community conversation producer at the Flint Journal's website was eliminated.
We were all in this together.

Hooks looked at a large empty slab of concrete and said, "Three weeks ago we lost the (medium-duty commercial) 560 line over there. Schwan's food (in Escanaba, Mich.) and U-Haul bought 1,500 vehicles at one time. We thought we had that line sold, but because of the bankruptcy the line was dropped." Just as the Sun-Times plans to split into "good" and "bad" companies, the 560 line became a "bad" company using the federal bankruptcy code from the GM and Chrysler bankruptcy cases. [But the Sun-Times is not getting a government bailout.] Nearly 400 jobs making the 560 were lost at the Flint truck plant.
I drove my black 2005 Pontiac to Flint.
Pontiac was a "bad" company too.
I parked in the front management lot. I was told that I had not been driving a GM car I would have had to park at Capitol Coney Island, about a half-mile from the plant and escorted to the plant in a GM vehicle. "In that lot we 'encourage' very aggressively a GM product," Hooks said with a stern face. "Not Chrysler, not Ford. But yeah, you go to the union hall and they won't let you park in their lot.
"When we say 'Buy American' we don't mind you buying a Toyota in Tennessee. We don't want you buying GM built in China. It used to be 30 percent of America bought GM It has dwindled down to 10, 12 per cent."

Hooks father is from Arkansas. He was one of the first to hire in the Flint plant. "When this plant opened up GM sent buses down south," Hooks said. "They loaded people in buses and brought them back here for jobs."
During my 90-minute tour I saw a balanced ratio of men and women and whites and blacks working in the plant.
"A lot of people ask about the women," said Hooks, who was a running back at the University of Tulsa. "It depends on your department. Seniority rules on what job you get. So the easiest job is not going to a woman, it will go to seniority. In the trim shop (interior, door lineage) upstairs, I'd say it is 30 to 40 percent women. The motor line will be 20 percent women. Overall I would say 20 to 30 percent of this plant is women." There is no smoking in the plant and cellphones are not allowed because of safety concerns.

It takes 24 production hours to make one truck from sheet metal to rollling off the line, according to plant communications manager Kevin Nadrowski.
Plant workers punch in with four 10 hour shifts with Fridays off. There's 30 minutes for lunch with 10 minute breaks in the morning and afternoon. Line workers are paid $28 an hour. The plant has its own union hall, softball field and picnic area. "As of seven months ago we had seven different trades," Hooks said. "Now we have two."

In recent months GM has been making a greater effort to humanize its work force through social media such as establishing a Facebook GM fan page, which is worth a look. I saw comments from scores of GM supporters including a woman with the great name of Linda Beemer whose grandfather was in the original-sit down strike at GM
The February, 1937 strike was not at the current site, but a half mile mile northeast of the plant at the former Buick plant on South Saginaw. A monument has been erected at Sit-Downers Memorial Park on the site.
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The 44-day strike took place during a bitterly cold December, January and February. At one point the heat was turned off in the plants and food delivery was stopped. A core group of wives and sweethearts were joined by hundreds of area women who rallied in support of the cause.
On Feb.1, 1937 the union planned a diversonary strike at Chevrolet Plant 9 in order to take Chevrolet Plant 4, the engine plant. Most of the union support, including the Women's Emergency Brigade, sent to Plant 9 to draw attention away from the designated target. During the diversion, police filled Plant 9 with tear gas. The brigade charged the police line, broke through and began to smash windows. Women busted out windows so their husbands could get air. This extended the time Plant 4 strikers had to complete their task. Because of this, they were successful.
When the strike ended on Feb. 11, 1937 General Motors recognized the United Auto Workers (UAW) as the sole bargaining agent for its employees.
Locals regard the strike as the birth of America's middle class. Before the strike, life consisted of the have and the have-nots. The strike created a middle wage level.

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One of the biggest surprises of the tour was how many robots I saw working the line. I'm guessing I saw more than a dozen robots that looked like extras from 'Star Wars.' "What can you say?," Hooks said. "Of course the union said 'We don't want robots.' Management sold it by saying, 'First we'll put them in the welding area where no one wants to go. Or the spray booth. In the old days you were breathing paint all day long and we didn't have a ventilation system. Those guys aren't allowed to complain because they're probably dead. It made sense."
Hooks said there's two ways to look at a robot.
"It's taking a union job," he explained. "OR, its making that job so efficient, now we need three more union guys to feed that robot. Robots do what? Only what a human tells it to do." Robots get sick, too. Hooks said electricians and pipe fitters (for hoses) are called in at a higher union pay scale.


"Plenty Tough and Union Made," Waco Brothers from Chicago

The Flint tour can be customized for time. My tour went from building the start of the cab, start of the chassis, beginning of paint process. The vehicles are painted with doors on, fenders and hood in front. I noticed instrumental snippets of the Michigan State fight song and other tunes periodically go off in the plant. "It might be the Notre Dame fight song or the theme from 'Star Wars'," Hooks said. Nadrowski added, "Its a call for help. There's a minor issue."

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Hooks looked upstairs and said, "One of the downfalls of our plant is that it is two stories. They don't build two story plants anymore. If you need something upstairs you have to go downstairs again. This plant was support to support the war. What won the war for us is the way these General Motors plants converted over. We built tanks. Women ran the plants during the war. Men were fighting.
"On 9/11, which I have to explain to some of the kids because they don't know, but the union came up with the idea to work one extra job. If everyone in the plant works one extra job, that is one extra vehicle. Management said they would donate the parts. One became two and we built two fire trucks for free. We drove them to the fire department closest to Ground Zero in New York. There were more tears shed that day. Every GM plant did the same thing. Toyota didn't. Honda didn't donate."

Hooks brought up a good point about GM's environmental practices. "Everything that leaves this plant is measured, whether it goes through the water, the air or out that back door. We have filters on top of filters. In South Korea and Mexico when they make cars they dump their toxic right in the water. And like it should be, we have the EPA on us all the time. People don't think about that."

IF YOU GO AND YOU SHOULD: Flint plant tours are offered at 9 and 11 a.m. Monday through Thursday. Because of manpower reduction, reservations should be made through the Flint Convention and Visitors Bureau at (810) 232-8900. "We used to have people who did this tour and now I do it," Hooks said. "We lost all our voice mails. The plant manager doesn't have voice mail. We're trying to save our plant."

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2 Comments

As a retired GM worker I understand fully what the Flint plant is going through.
My plant was the original Fisher Body plant in Willow Springs IL., later called BOC Chicago.
When BOC closed in 1989 Iwas lucky to transfer to SPO Broadview Chicago and retired in 2002 with 38 years. My Local union was 558 at BOC and
2114 at SPO.

Hey thanks for checking in Jerome. Catch Micheal Moore's "Capitalism...." Dave

Hi Dave,

Did you eat any Coneys in Flint???

Gordon


Hi,
Yep, went to Angelo's--not bad, loved the atmosphere, although lots of smokers. Tough now that I'm used to Chicago's no-smoking ban.

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Dave Hoekstra

Dave Hoekstra has been a Chicago Sun-Times staff writer since 1985. His collection of Sun-Times travel columns, "Ticket To Everywhere," was published in 2000 by Lake Claremont Press. He was lead writer for "Farm Aid: Song for America" (Rodale Press, 2005) which commemorated the 20th anniversary of the Willie Nelson inspired effort.
He won a 1987 Chicago Newspaper Guild Stick O-Type Award for Column Writing. Hoekstra wrote and co-proudced the WTTW-Channel 11 PBS special: "The Staple Singers and the Civil Rights Movement," nominated for a 2001-02 Chicago Emmy for a documentary program/cultural significance.
He lives in Chicago.

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This page contains a single entry by David Hoekstra published on September 17, 2009 5:48 PM.

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