BY JOHN SARGE
DETROIT - General Motors (GM), the world's largest auto maker, announced to workers in its Buick City Assembly Plant that the facility will close in 1999. Using an in-plant video system, the 2,900 members of United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 599 were informed of the decision between shifts on November 21.
Flint, an industrial city of about 170,000 people where the auto giant was founded in 1908, is 65 miles north of Detroit. It has been devastated by GM plant closings. The company's employment in Flint has plunged from 77,000 in the late 1970s to around 33,000 today. City officials and auto industry analysts anticipate that number to shrink to 20,000 within the decade.
The closing of Buick City Assembly comes on the heels of announced plans to close a 3,100-worker engine plant in the city. GM, which currently employs about 220,000 unionized production workers, has cut 82,000 jobs since 1991.
Rumors of the closing had circulated in the plant for months, but the announcement stunned many. "As soon as everyone knew, a hush went across the [plant]," one woman told the press as she left the complex. The average age of workers in the plant is 46, according to GM, and the average seniority is between 23 and 28 years.
The local press tried to blame UAW Local 599 for the plant closing, claiming that a 1994 strike demanding GM live up to the national UAW contract and hire more workers was behind the decision. But the decision is part of the company's attempt to manage the crisis of excess capacity it faces. GM has the capacity to meet 36 percent of the demand for vehicles in North America, but its market share is just 31 percent of the vehicles sold. Its North American assembly operations had a profit rate of only 1.8 percent at the end of the September, up from 1.2 percent last year but far short of the corporate goal of 5 percent.
The auto giant announced earlier in the month plans to take an after tax charge to cover continued plant closings and sales. In September, GM put three units of its parts division, Delphi, up for sale. Those three operations employ 11,300 people in North America and Europe. At the same time, the corporation projects building five new plants in Eastern Europe, South America, and Asia.
In the face of GM's downsizing and plant closings, the UAW officialdom has tried to tie workers in Flint more tightly into seeing their interests as the same as those of the owners of GM. The local union leadership launched an advertising campaign to convince company stock holders not to close Buick City.
UAW international president Stephen Yokich lashed at GM's announcement, declaring, "This action is one more example of the America-last strategy that's driving the biggest corporations in the U.S." He went on, "Closing this facility is a betrayal of GM's workforce, of the community and the country, especially in light of GM's huge profits."
John Sarge is a member of the United Auto Workers in Detroit.
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