GM employees hoping for a better year

$4 billion in aid a ray of light in otherwise dim times

By JENNA MINK, The Daily News, jmink@bgdailynews.com
Saturday, January 3, 2009 12:01 AM CST

The new year brings a mixture of optimism and gloom to workers at the General Motors Bowling Green Assembly Plant.

On one hand, President George W. Bush recently approved a $13.4 billion loan that could save the company from bankruptcy and failure. The Treasury Department handed over the first installment of that loan Wednesday, to the tune of about $4 billion.

“From the time that the president actually made that decision, people felt at least some relief knowing that they company they’ve worked for the past 30 years isn’t going bankrupt,” said Eldon Renaud, president of the local United Auto Workers.

On the other hand, the plant is closed until Feb. 23, and about 154 workers will be indefinitely laid off by March 1. The plant stopped production after the holidays as part of a companywide strategy to conserve money; about 25 workers were laid off before the holidays, and the plant issued 51 layoffs in October.

“I know some people who are being laid off are concerned they never will come back,” Renaud said. “I believe that they will, and that’s all we can do is to work toward that goal.”

Josh Honshell was laid off in October after working for the company for eight years.

“You really don’t worry until after (the layoff) it kind of hits you,” he said. “You start seeing things on the news about the economy being real bad ... it’s really scary to know I’ve got eight years in this company.”

For now, Honshell is waiting to find out whether GM will get back on its feet and whether he will get his job back, spending time at home with his daughters, ages 7 and 2.

“You try to stay positive. It really hasn’t affected us too much, or I haven’t let my family see that it has affected us really,” he said. “You really can’t have a game plan. You wait and see what kind of agreements they make with management, and you kind of go from there.”

The UAW is talking with GM officials to iron out concessions required as part of the federal loan. If certain concessions are not made, the government could pull the plug on GM’s federal lifeline, according to reports.

Renaud said he thinks the company might consider altering the Voluntary Employee Benefit Association.

“I’m hoping that they leave retirees’ pension and health care alone,” he said. “Everybody wants to retire as soon as they can, and they don’t think that one day somebody is going to take away their pension and health care.”

He added that many people have wrong notions about the amount of benefits GM retirees receive.

“A lot of people retire at $500, $600 a month,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of (rumors) being passed around about that.”

Renaud expects the first few months of 2009 will continue to be bumpy for GM, but thinks the outlook may brighten in the second half.

“I’m just hoping that between now and springtime, which is usually the best selling time, we’ll be able to get people back to work,” he said. “It’s a list of (hardships) I don’t think we’ll face again in our lifetime, a perfect storm of calamities.”

And as the new year begins, Honshell said he is trying to remain positive about his job.

“You just cross your fingers and put a lot of faith in God and pray that everything is going to be OK,” he said. “It’s the only attitude you can have.”