RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
More than 20,000 autoworkers are preparing to join the ranks of the unemployed, once the dust settles over the General Motors bankruptcy - more pain, of course, for families and local economies, plus the job losses will be a heavy blow for the United Auto Workers Union.
Celeste Headlee has this report.
CELESTE HEADLEE: At its height in 1979, the United Auto Workers Union had 1.5 million members. Last year, it had about 430,000 members. And with bankruptcy filings at both Chrysler and GM, tens of thousands more will fall off the active rolls. Don Skidmore has worked at the Willow Run plant for 31 years. The plant is slated to close.
Mr. DON SKIDMORE (President, UAW Local): I'm a first-time president. I've been president for a year, and never thought I would probably be the last president of Local 735.
HEADLEE: Fourteen plants are scheduled to close under GM's restructuring plan, and about a third of the company's hourly workers will be laid off. Skidmore says very few of his friends will keep their jobs assembling transmissions.
Mr. SKIDMORE: The plants are not going to be closed until the middle of 2010, but instantly, they told us they were going to cease operations in the 60, which affects about 450 people immediately today.
HEADLEE: Three hundred more at Skidmore's plant will be laid off in August.
Mr. SKIDMORE: Ypsilanti will be a ghost town, the town that the plant's in. The banks, the credit unions, janitors, all the little restaurants - I can't even tell you what Ypsilanti would look like when that plant finally leaves.
HEADLEE: Some experts say GM's bankruptcy filing will speed up the decline of the once powerful and influential UAW. Karen Boroff is the Dean of the Stillman School of Business at Seton Hall University. She said the UAW will have to work hard just to avoid shrinking even more. And she says the Union's efforts will be complicated by the fact that it now owns a 55 percent stake in Chrysler and about 17 percent of GM.
Dr. KAREN BOROFF (Dean, Stillman School of Business, Seton Hall University): Can the UAW pick up the management mantle and all the very difficult decisions that are going to come forth from that? It's a good question. We don't have an answer yet.
HEADLEE: This isn't the first time the Union has taken a seat on both sides of the bargaining table. During the 1980s, then UAW President Doug Fraser took a seat on Chrysler's board as part of the conditions for a federal loan to the automaker. The situation today, though, is far more serious with higher stakes. Roland Zullo of the University of Michigan's Labor Study Department says it would be a mistake to count the UAW out. He says the UAW did a good job of protecting its members' wages and benefits as GM stumbled toward bankruptcy.
It was also able to convince the company to put four plants on standby instead of closing them outright. Zullo says the UAW is also making significant strides in diversifying outside the auto industry.
Mr. ROLAND ZULLO (Labor Study Department, University of Michigan): So one of the biggest locals of the UAW is Local 6000, which is their public employee local here in the State of Michigan.
HEADLEE: Among its members, the UAW now counts casino workers, childcare providers, professors and even graduate assistants across the state of California. But Don Skidmore of Local 735 says among all the talk about historical trends and political action, Americans shouldn't forget that tens of thousands of people are losing their jobs.
Mr. DON SKIDMORE (UAW Local 735): I've always looked at other officers in the Union over the years when they lose their plants, and you wonder: How do they get through it? And then here you are. It feels like I'm at a funeral.
HEADLEE: GM leaders say they expect to emerge from bankruptcy in 60 to 90 days as a leaner, more efficient company.
For NPR News, I'm Celeste Headlee, in Detroit.
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