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Published: Saturday, 12/20/2008

Relief bittersweet for Jeep workers leaving their jobs

BY LARRY P. VELLEQUETTE
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER

Thousands of workers like Richard Nearhood and Nancy Malosh left their jobs Friday at Chrysler LLC's Toledo Jeep Assembly complex - some for a month, others for what will be far longer.

For even on the day that President Bush threw a lifeline to struggling domestic automakers - $17.4 billion in federal loans for Chrysler and General Motors Corp. - their employees left for an extended Christmas shutdown with the knowledge that life as they knew it is about to change dramatically.

"It's a relief that these companies got the money," said Mr. Nearhood, who, along with Ms. Malosh, retired yesterday after more than 30 years making Jeeps. But Ms. Malosh said her retirement was bittersweet.

"There are lots of us taking a buyout to keep the less senior people working, but it's not going to be the same for them," she said.

Across the area, there was a general sense of relief that the Bush Administration had stepped up to provide bridge loans to the domestic automakers, even if it did come at a price.

"They just had to do something," said Tim Korhumel, sales manager at Brown Pontiac in Sylvania Township. "I don't think people nationwide have a feel for just how many people are involved in the car business. This is a good, positive thing, I think, just for the local economy."

The loans, he said, should send a signal to potential buyers that it's OK to go ahead and buy a new car again.

"I think people were kind of holding back, waiting to see what happened," he said.

However, for those who make their living building automobiles and parts locally, the bridge loans come with a heavy price - at least temporarily.

"I think it will be just enough to help us hold on," said Clayton Akers, who works at the Toledo Jeep factory, which makes Jeep Liberty and Dodge Nitros.

Business has been extremely slow at the plant. Union officials said orders for the midsized SUVs have "been in the single digits on days this week." The plant traditionally makes about 600 vehicles a day on two shifts.

As one of the conditions of the federal loans, laid-off auto workers will soon no longer be eligible to receive a benefit that provides them up to 95 percent of their take-home pay during a layoff, even when state unemployment is exhausted. The conditions also require that unionized auto workers take pay and benefit cuts that make their total compensation equal with those who work in nonunion, foreign-owned auto plants in the United States.

Right now, thousands of workers from Chrysler, Ford Motor Co., and General Motors Corp. are laid off, either temporarily or permanently, as the companies try to eliminate inventories of their unsold vehicles.

Elimination of the company-paid jobless pay benefit could leave some laid-off workers without any source of income.

There are an estimated 60,000 active and retired auto workers in northwest Ohio and Monroe, Lenawee, and Hillsdale counties in Michigan, a UAW official said. Retirees could be affected if the financially struggling automakers are unable to continue meeting their retiree health-care obligations.

However, United Auto Workers President Ron Gettelfinger said in a statement yesterday that the union would work with the incoming Barack Obama administration and the new Congress "to ensure that these unfair conditions are removed."

Ms. Malosh said she couldn't understand "why the rest of the country seems to hate auto workers so much. We're just trying to make a living, like anybody else," she said. "Is it a good living? Yes. But I think everyone should make a good living."

Contact Larry P. Vellequette at:

lvellequette@theblade.com

or 419-724-6091.



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