GM Workers Face Choice: Buyout or Bet on Recovery

Laid-off worker Rick Siegert

hide captionLaid-off worker Rick Siegert plans to turn down a $70,000 buyout to cut his ties to General Motors. He'd rather keep working in the company's Jobs Bank, building art work like this for a community group while still earning a full salary.

Frank Langfitt, NPR

Facing mounting losses, General Motors has offered buyouts to its union employees in the United States. Now GM workers must decide whether to take company buyouts or stay on, betting that the automaker can recover and avoid bankruptcy.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

At General Motors, workers are trying to decide whether to leave the company in exchange for one-time cash payouts. Those buyouts would help the struggling automaker cut costs. They range from $35,000 to $140,000, depending on seniority. But the decision isn't easy. In exchange for the cash, some workers would have to give up all company benefits, including health insurance. NPR's Frank Langfitt has that story.

FRANK LANGFITT reporting:

Chip Long doesn't know what to do. Last year he was temporarily laid off from his job repairing machinery at a GM van plant in Baltimore. Now, after ten years with the company, he could get $140,000 to walk away for good. But Long hopes to get on at another GM factory, and his wife, Terry, relies on his GM insurance to help pay her medical bills.

Mr. CHIP LONG (GM employee, Baltimore): She's worried about the health insurance. That's her biggest concern, you know. She's had two carpal tunnel operations in the last year and a half, so, you know, without health insurance, you know, it's going to be tough.

SOUNDBITE OF LABOR HISTORY CLASS

LANGFITT: Bill Barry teaches labor history at a community college in Baltimore County. It's just a few miles from the GM van plant which shut down last year. Among his students are laid off GM workers like Chip Long. Some seek his advice on whether to take the buyout or try to get on at another GM plant.

Mr. BILL BARRY (Labor history teacher): I've had endless conversations. There's no easy solution. The option is to try to move to another General Motors plant, but that's very insecure. And about a third of the workers here in Baltimore who were in the plant that just closed were from other plants. And so they're the kind of GM nomads.

LANGFITT: Brian Woollen is another of Barry's laid off GM students. He'd like to work at a GM transmission plant, the company's only facility left around Baltimore. But he's way down on the list to get in. Woollen says he's willing to move for another GM job. But with the company losing billions of dollars and closing more plants, he isn't sure where he could go.

Mr. BRIAN WOOLLEN (GM employee, Baltimore): If I would've said to my wife, there's an opening in Georgia, would you want to try it, okay, that's one of the plants she would consider. Now that they're considering closing Georgia, it's a situation where there's not a whole of places where she would go.

LANGFITT: Laid off workers like Woollen are attending college as part of a controversial GM program called the Jobs Bank. It pays thousands of laid off GM employees full salary, even though they aren't actually making cars. GM is expected to try to slash the program in next year's contract negotiations.

Rick Segert is in the Jobs Bank. He's working on an arts project to revitalize Dundawk, an old industrial suburb outside Baltimore, where many GM workers used to live. A shower of sparks flies as Segert buffs a giant steel sunburst, which will serve as a gateway to the community. Segert refuses to take the buyout and he's hoping the Jobs Bank lasts.

Mr. RICK SEGERT (GM employee, Baltimore): I love where I live. I don't want to leave. I have contacts here. I'm going to ride it out. I'm going to take and see what happens in 2007. It's a possibility that this language could put back into the contract. And I could go right back into the Job Bank for another four years.

LANGFITT: But if the Jobs Bank ends, or GM goes bankrupt, Segert says he's ready to do something else. At a time when a job with GM offers more uncertainty than security, Segert says everyone needs a plan B.

Mr. SEGERT: I have a lot more options than a lot of people. You know, I work on cars. I build metal sculpture. I paint. I do graphic design. But there is a lot of people that work for GM that they've worked there since they were right out of high school. They haven't had a chance to have any other skills. So good luck finding a job with those kind of wages and the health care. It's not going to happen.

LANGFITT: General Motors is expected to make formal buyout offers to 113,000 workers beginning next week. Employees will then have 45 days to decide what to do.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Washington.

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