Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Autoworkers protest Sen. Corker's anti-bailout stand

Several hundred current and retired Tennessee autoworkers rallied in front of U.S. Sen. Bob Corker's Nashville office on Monday in support of the proposed bailout of the U.S. automakers pending in Congress.

Corker was targeted because of his hard-line stance against aid to the automakers, said Michael O'Rourke, president of United Auto Workers Local 1853, which represents hourly workers at the General Motors Corp. plant in Spring Hill.

"This protest is about our displeasure with Bob Corker," O'Rourke said. "He's trying to make a name for himself, but we have 90,000 jobs in this state that depend on the Detroit automakers and he doesn't even care."

Participating in the rally, besides GM employees and retirees from Spring Hill, were workers from other Nashville-area plants that manufacture vehicles or parts, including Peterbilt, the truck maker, and the Zeledyne glass plant, whose products are used in Ford vehicles.

Others attending the event included members of the NAACP, the AFL-CIO and the group Jobs for Justice, O'Rourke said.

At the same time, Crown Ford owner Roxanne Coats McDonald led a group of Nashville business leaders through her store and pleaded the automakers' case on behalf of struggling Nashville-area auto dealers.

She said many of those businesses would be destroyed by a shutdown of any of the Big Three.

Even though Ford Motor Co. isn't currently asking for federal aid, McDonald said it's imperative that Congress help the other two U.S. automakers — GM and Chrysler LLC — to avoid a complete meltdown of the industry.

"Because the U.S. auto industry is highly interconnected, the failure of just one of its competitors would trigger a ripple effect" that would affect Ford, as well as its suppliers and dealers, she said.

The devastation would be felt nationwide, she said, and Nashville would be severely affected.

'Huge impact' nationwide

Carl Johnson, dealer credit manager for Ford Motor Credit, said the automaker itself has an annual payroll of $72 million "in Middle Tennessee alone."

"We have been a significant employer in Nashville since the mid-1950s," he said. "There are 4,400 Ford retirees and 1,450 Ford employees statewide, and with their families, there are probably well more than 10,000 Tennesseans whose personal finances are very closely tied to Ford's success."

Some of those work at the former Ford glass plant in Nashville, which was taken over earlier this year by the new operator, Zeledyne.

"The loan package being debated in Washington is critically important, not just for the domestic automakers, but for the entire automotive industry," said Zeledyne Chief Executive Officer Michael J. McCarney.

"Should one of the domestic automakers fail, it would have a huge impact on automotive suppliers around the country, including Zeledyne right here in Nashville," he said, adding that the plant has 475 employees and had a payroll totaling $38 million last year.

Retirees rely on benefits

GM has about 3,500 active employees at the Spring Hill plant, and hundreds more workers are employed by companies in the area that supply parts and services to the facility. There also are hundreds of GM retirees in Middle Tennessee who are dependent on the automaker for their pension and health insurance benefits, the UAW said.

Among them is James Zazzarine, 64, of Thompson's Station, who worked for GM 29 years before retiring two years ago.

"I could lose my pension and my health care if GM goes down," he said. "But the people in Washington with all the money are telling us that we don't deserve anything."

Workers expressed outrage over Congress' willingness to give hundreds of billions of dollars in aid to the financial community while balking at the automakers' request for as little as $15 billion in short-term loans, said Mike Herron, chairman of UAW Local 1853.

But the workers also are upset that the state and federal governments have given millions of dollars in incentives to foreign automakers to build plants in the United States, while Congress "balks at aid for American carmakers," he said.

Corker was instrumental in efforts this year to entice Germany's Volkswagen to build a new factory in Chattanooga, the senator's hometown, yet he is one of the most vocal opponents of help for the U.S. automakers, Herron said.

"It's unfair to cut Americans to death while you're subsidizing the foreign automakers," he said. "A senator in Tennessee ought to be speaking up for the auto industry in Tennessee."

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