Wondering what’s in store: GM workers look at options after layoff

Wondering what’s in store

GM workers look at options after layoff

The Kansas City Times

By Rod Perlmutter Of the Business Staff

February 14, 1987

Eight-year-old Brandon Cox may have a new baseball coach next week, and he has General Motors Corp.’s slow-selling cars to thank for it.

Brandon’s father, Jerry, is one of about 2,000 auto workers at GM’s Leeds assembly plant who started on indefinite layoff today.

The plant cut its second shift because the three cars it assembles — the Buick Skyhawk, the Oldsmobile Firenza and the Chevrolet Cavalier — were piling up on dealer lots nationwide and GM had to slash production.

All that means for Brandon, however, is that his dad, who usually doesn’t get home from work on week nights until after midnight, now will be free to spend some time coaching a Shawnee baseball team.

“If I can find a good day job, I’ll do it,” said Cox, 29. “Hope I can, ’cause that’s what dads are all about.”

But finding a good day job may be difficult — particularly if, like Cox, one is supporting a wife and three children and has about six months of payments left on his car.

He joins about 33,500 GM autoworkers on indefinite layoff nationwide. And many of them are uncertain about future work.

Despite reassurances by GM and United Auto Workers officials, some workers doubt that Leeds’ second shift will return, even though the shift has been reinstated twice in the last seven years.

Although some workers have applied to GM for openings at other plants, others say that with 33,500 GM autoworkers already on indefinite layoff, applying would be useless.

Workers who plan to leave GM can count on earning less than half of the average $13.50 an hour paid to GM autoworkers, as well as on skeptical bosses;

“Other employers aren’t too quick to hire you, because they think you’ll quit and go back to work for GM,” said Percy Moore, 34, an autoworker originally from Oakland, Calif. “But I don’t think : the auto industry has that great of a future anymore.”

Those who chose to follow GM across country for jobs before are reluctant to do it again. “We came 2,000 miles guaranteed a job — and now we’re on indefinite layoff,” said Nellie Black, who came here in 1983 after she and her husband, Robert, were laid off’ at GM’s plant in Fremont, Calif.

The possibility of more layoffs nationwide has fueled fear about the stability of the UAW’s unemployment fund and has further reduced optimism about getting jobs at GM plants.

The layoff at Leeds affects 1,870 hourly and 130 salaried employees.

Even though the second shift was reinstated after a 23-week layoff in 1980 and a 15-month layoff ending in 1983, many workers are less than optimistic that the second shift wills return this time.

Outlook for GM jobs dim

Under the UAW contract, autoworkers can be put on area-hire lists, which allow them to take jobs when openings appear at other GM plants.

But some workers with roots in Kansas City are reluctant to leave and are extremely skeptical about  the chances of getting a GM job elsewhere anyway.

“It doesn’t do any good to put in an application to GM,” Cox said. “In my opinion, GM’s gone and we have to look for something else.”

They point to GM’s announcement in November that 11 plants and operations would be closed by 1990, including the St. Louis GM truck plant by this fall. And even if Leeds workers find jobs at other plants, there are costs, both financial and emotional, in making such a move.

Moore, 34, said he was on layoff for nearly 28 months at Fremont when he decided to stick with GM and move to Kansas City. That move cost him about $1,200, but he thought it was worth it when he started working at Leeds in October 1983.

“When we came out here, we thought we had a good permanent job, but it looks like they brought us out here to be laid off,” Moore said.

Moore’s ex-wife still lives in California, and Moore said his decision to move was part of the reason for their divorce.

“In a way, I’m glad she didn’t come (to Kansas City),” Moore said. “Now I’m facing the same situation I had before. I guess she knew what she was talking about.”

Moore doesn’t think he can depend on unemployment benefits that are guaranteed to laid-off GM workers.

The benefits fund, known as the supplemental unemployment benefits, or sub-pay, is based. on the number of employees who are laid off. Each sub-pay check is about 95 percent of a worker’s weekly wage.

But the number of the checks changes with the number of laid-off workers. The higher the number of layoffs, the fewer checks a laid-off employee can get.

That uncertainty motivates laid-off workers to look for other jobs, Cox said.

“You can’t sit back and say, ‘I’m going to get paid X amount of weeks,’ ” he said. “You’ve got to go out and find something.”

Pay cut likely for workers

GM autoworkers looking for jobs in Kansas City should prepare for wage cuts, said Virginia Guzman, a regional economist for the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics in Kansas City. She said GM autoworkers, on the average, are paid from $1 to $3 more an hour than the local average for production workers in manufacturing.

Even though autoworkers nationwide are more educated than they were a generation ago — more than 70 percent have high school diplomas— it’s not clear how this would translate into job opportunities, said Reg McGhee, a UAW spokesman in Detroit.

“Even with a business degree, I don’t think you can get an entry level job” that pays as much as a GM hourly wage, Guzman said.

And for autoworkers that have already developed other skills outside the plant, such as Robert and Nellie Black, Kansas City may not offer the level of wages they are accustomed to.

Robert, 28, intends to paint commercial vehicles while on layoff, and his wife, Nellie, 29, hopes to photograph weddings and other events professionally.

Both acquired these skills as a result of frequent layoffs when they worked at the Fremont plant. But both said it was different now; they have three children, and although the cost-of-living is less here than in the San Francisco Bay area, so are the wages.

Like Moore, the Blacks left family behind when they moved here after more than two years of layoff from the Fremont plant. But unlike Moore, who may leave the area, the Blacks intend to continue to call Blue Springs their home.

“The schools here are excellent. They’re not overcrowded like they are in San Francisco, and the teachers have more time for each student,” Robert Black said.

Robert Black said he would earn about $12 an hour at an auto-painting business here, which is a third less than what he earned for similar work in California. Similarly, Nellie Black has found that wedding photographers in the Kansas City area earn less and work longer hours than what she was used to in California.

Still, she said, searching for a job here shouldn’t be as demeaning as it was when she was laid off at Fremont. Before an employer hired her in California for a photo-processing job, he asked her whether she would return to GM and then called her husband to double-check her statement.

But the Blacks remain optimistic that the second shift will return to the plant.

“Everybody tells me to hope for them because they have given up,” Nellie Black said.

# # #

(For more information about the fate of Leeds, see these articles by Rod Perlmutter in The Kansas City Times:)

“GM to shut down Leeds,” January 20, 1988

“Plant’s fortune tied to owner’s,” January 20, 1988

“At 8,224,056th car, Leeds takes a hiatus,” April 20, 1988

“Experts not betting on Isuzu at Leeds,” May 24, 1988

“Leeds fight is personal for plant manager: Longtime worker courts Isuzu, GM, vowing idled site won’t be forgotten,” August 25, 1988


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