Michigan Worries Economic Recovery Will Pass It By

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While big bonuses and Wall Street bailouts steal the headlines this week, Michigan waits to see what's in store for the auto industry. The state which has been struggling with a weak economy for years. People there worry about whether any national recovery will benefit them.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Because of the trouble in the auto industry, the recession hit Michigan earlier and harder than the rest of the country. And history shows that any eventual economic recovery could take longer there. General Motors and Chrysler need billions more in federal aid. A decision by Treasury officials is due in less than two weeks, which means Michigan residents are anxiously watching Washington, though they know that federal help won't guarantee a turnaround. NPR's Don Gonyea reports from his home state. He's in Detroit.

DON GONYEA: When you live in Michigan, you get used to the ups and downs of the auto industry. Years of good times yield to difficult stretches, but there's always a sense that you get through the tough times and that things eventually turn around. Such is life in Michigan, but now it all feels different.

Mr. DON SKIDMORE (Union Official) You know, this is the worst I've ever seen it, ever, in my lifetime, since we were kids.

GONYEA: That's 51-year-old Don Skidmore. He hired in at General Motors when he was 20 years old. Today he is president of UAW Local 735, the company's Willow Run plant. The screensaver on Skidmore's computer looks to his factory's storied past.

Mr. SKIDMORE: That was during World War II. We built a B-24.

GONYEA: The B-24 is the bomber, known as the Liberator, built back when Detroit was known as the arsenal of democracy. Today, Willow Run builds transmissions for GM trucks. Three decades ago, this factory had 14,000 workers. Today it has 1,400. Next month, it will be down to 1,100. And the scary reality is that even if GM gets the help from the federal government it wants, there's no guarantee that this plant will be part of its future. Skidmore, whose six foot three inch 330 pound frame gives him the look of a Detroit Lions offensive tackle, says these days he feels as much like a guidance counselor as a union leader.

Mr. SKIDMORE: No doubt about it, and I've had lots of friends that are 30-year guys that, you know, I have kids in college, I'm not ready to go. And when I tell people to stay positive, if you're retiring out of fear, you don't have the money or you're really not ready to go, don't go. Ride it out, 'cause I think GM's going to push through the other end of this. I think we can hold on and things will get better, and I'm an optimist.

GONYEA: Still, Skidmore says he spends a lot of nights unable to sleep, worried about it all. And the whole state is feeling something akin to that. Property values have plummeted, houses aren't selling, school districts are losing revenue, governments are slashing budgets, the unemployment rate has jumped to 11.6 percent, worst in the nation. Tom Gorea(ph) is a 51-year-old mechanic from Dearborn Heights who says he's been out of work since August. He also works in new home construction, but that has dried up as well. He says if the nation is suffering from recession, it deserves a different name in Michigan.

Mr. TOM GOREA (Mechanic): This feels more like depression. It's just snowballing, is all it's doing. Who's going to say if it's going to start straightening out this year or it's going to take another year or two before it starts getting somewhere.

GONYEA: In Auburn Hills, Michigan, 65-year-old Norm Huvey(ph) is out of work and contemplating a retirement he wasn't ready for. Huvey says if the U.S. wants a middle class, then it can't let companies like GM and Chrysler fail.

Mr. NORM HUVEY: If we don't do something about keeping our manufacturing base, we're going to be a Third World country. And I hope to God people, you know, see some sense. Obama's not doing everything I want, but he's trying. I hope he's successful.

GONYEA: Michigan's Democratic Governor Jennifer Granholm says she sees encouraging signs from the members of the president's automotive task force, that they're looking to help GM and Chrysler avoid going into bankruptcy in the fight to stay alive, although what the task force will do is not yet known. And this week Granholm held an event with nine companies that are combining to bring some 2,500 new jobs to the state. Still, it's a tiny bit of good to report amid so much bad news.

Governor JENNIFER GRANHOLD (Democrat, Michigan): So much of this is tied into what the auto task force decides. If they decide that they are going to partner with this industry, there'll be one outcome. If not, then it could get much, much worse.

GONYEA: And that is why people in this state seem to be holding their breath.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, Detroit.

INSKEEP: And there was some cheer in Detroit last night when the city was able to recapture some of its old magic, Motown magic. As the Detroit Free Press reports, the contestants of "American Idol" visited Detroit's Motown Historical Museum, where they were coached on their singing by none other than Barry Gordy and Smokey Robinson.

It was a moment when the past met the present and the people of Detroit caught a glimpse of what their town used to be.

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