×

GM transfers tell moving stories

UAW members support one another

FORT WAYNE, Ind. — General Motors transplants have heard the whispers and read the online comments. They’ve endured rude remarks from residents bold enough to say out loud that local jobs are stolen when GM workers transfer in from out of state.

Perhaps no other local workers attract as much blue-collar envy as the 4,000 or so who assemble Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra pickups at a factory on Lafayette Center Road. As Labor Day approaches, it’s an opportune time to look beyond their paychecks and benefits to learn what their lives are like.

United Auto Workers Local 2209, which represents General Motors Co.’s local hourly workers, recently gathered 10 union members at The (Fort Wayne, Ind.) Journal Gazette’s request to talk about the realities of transferring to work in the Fort Wayne facility.

Although they are well-paid, with UAW members averaging $90,000 per year plus benefits, their lives aren’t without struggles. Men and women, ages 39 to 62, provided a rare glimpse into their difficulty finding child care, strained family relationships, struggles with alcoholism and feeling forced to follow GM job openings because no one else would hire them.

The automaker and the UAW are engaged in collective bargaining talks ahead of the current contract’s expiration at 11:59 p.m. Sept. 14. The issues they’re discussing behind closed doors : wages and benefits : are low on the list of what’s stressing these local GM workers.

FAR FROM FAMILY

The workers who gathered in Local 2209’s union hall to share their stories transferred from Ohio, Michigan, and Kansas. But some first joined GM in Janesville, Wisconsin, where their families remain years after the plant there closed.

Al Hammer, who works third shift in the paint shop, transferred to the local assembly plant in August 2012. That was after spending three years working in the Kansas City plant and the 12 years before that in Janesville.

When Hammer built his home in Wisconsin, it was appraised at $150,000 or more in value, he said. Real estate values took a beating throughout the community after the automaker pulled out.

Rather than lock in those losses, Hammer started making the 1,000-mile round trip to Kansas City, the first GM plant to call and offer him work. The one-way drive, which he made on weekends, took more than seven hours.

Hammer’s family stayed in Evansville, Wisconsin, on what he described as a farmette : a 10-acre property with farm animals. His three children were 17, 16 and 11. The family got rid of the animals after about a year because it was too much for his wife to manage.

“The wife didn’t think I did a whole lot until I left,” he said. He wasn’t the only commuting husband to make that observation.

Hammer, 57, still commutes from Wisconsin. But, now, the trip is only about half as long : 550 miles round trip. Even so, he rarely makes it.

He typically works six days a week and goes home only when he gets two or more consecutive days off. Sometimes he’ll go a month or two between visits.

Hammer was renting an apartment here before friends offered to let him move into their spare room. He pays them back by helping with handyman projects around the house.

He calls his family daily. “If there’s a problem at home, they call me,” he added.

Hammer made what seemed like the best choice at the time, when he transferred to the Kansas City plant and left his family behind. But he wouldn’t encourage others to follow his path.

“My recommendation would be: Weigh out your options and think hard. Moving your family here is probably the best,” he said. “I went to Kansas City when I was 46 years old. If I looked back today, I probably wouldn’t do it again.”

Despite his regrets, he said it’s too late to change course.

“I’ve got enough years in now,” he said, “that I can’t just say ‘screw it’ and quit.”

RAISING FAMILY

Melinda Ladd, 39, has worked for GM all her adult life. She was hired as a temp at Lake Orion Assembly in Michigan in June 1999 and was made a permanent employee in October 2000.

In late 2009, the Lake Orion plant was temporarily closed for retooling. The plan was to reopen after 15 months to start churning out the Chevy Volt. After one year on layoff, Ladd was afraid of losing her health insurance, so she put in for “an extended-area hire” to come to Fort Wayne.

The single mother moved here with her daughter, Reese, who was 6. Ladd’s mother came along the first month so Ladd could scout out child care that would work with her third-shift schedule.

After finding someone she trusted, Ladd would pack up her daughter at 10 p.m. each work day and drop her off to sleep on the babysitter’s couch.

“The public doesn’t see the sacrifices the (union) members go through,” she said, adding that the children don’t have a say but are affected by those decisions.

Michele Buckler, 48, dealt with similar issues when she transferred to the Fort Wayne assembly plant from Flint, Michigan, nine years ago.

She has three sons, who were ages 14, 10 and 6 when they moved here on Jan. 29, 2000. Buckler had to report to work on Feb. 1, so she had little time to settle in and make child care arrangements.

A woman who agreed to watch Buckler’s children while she worked backed out, and Buckler found someone else at the last minute. Also on third shift, Buckler would drop her children off at the sitter’s home in their pajamas on her way to work.

Her youngest boy didn’t cope well.

“He would cry every day,” she said, recalling that they talked every night during her breaks. “I would just be on the phone sobbing with him.”

‘THEY WON’T CALL’

Jack Croxall hired in at GM’s Lordstown, Ohio, plant in October 2013. But it wasn’t long before GM cut back production there. His last day was in January 2017.

The 40-year-old joined the Fort Wayne workforce in May 2017 as a seniority summer temp, a position that was supposed to last three months but stretched on for a year. Croxall took the position because his prospects in Ohio were bleak.

“I went four months back home without an interview,” he said. “When you have GM on your resume, they won’t call you. They know you’ll go back as soon as GM calls.”

Croxall’s first year here was rough. He was working six or seven days a week. When he could get away, it was a 4 1/2 hour drive home. And money was an issue. The family had two sets of rent and utility bills to pay each month.

“It was very stressful” for his wife, he said. She and their three children moved here in June, after the school year ended. His son is 12, and his daughters are 7 and 5.

Croxall officially transferred, becoming a permanent employee in April 2018. His family followed a year later.

It was easier for them to move than some others because the children are younger, not yet in high school, he said. Also, the family was attracted to the school district, which is better than where they were previously.

Since the move, Croxall’s wife has found a job as a pharmacy technician at Lutheran Hospital. He works third shift as a replacement officer on a line that installs trim on the trucks.

“We’re still learning” about Fort Wayne, he said. “We love the area. The kids love the zoo : we have a membership there.”

CREATING COMMUNITY

The assembled GM workers said settling into the community can be challenging.

Chris Waldo, a first-shift chassis department worker, said that when co-workers ask for a recommendation for the best barbecue joint in town, for example, nobody knows because they all work six days a week and don’t have a lot of time to explore.

And local residents haven’t necessarily embraced GM workers who arrive from other states, taking jobs that some people think might have gone to someone already living here, Croxall said.

“A lot of new transfers have come up to me and tell me they don’t feel welcome,” he said.

Ladd, who has heard similar comments, wants residents to remember that local retailers, restaurants and other businesses have benefited from the money GM employees spend here. Even the housing market is stronger, she said, because of demand created by those GM families who decide to relocate.

Buckler, who works on the third-shift motor line, said what helped her settle in was getting involved with the union, where she is on the Election Committee and chairs the Chaplaincy Committee.

The Chaplaincy Committee visits union members in the hospital, attends funerals, mediates disputes, takes prayer requests and mails cards to the bereaved.

Buckler, who is 14 years sober, said workers look out for each other. At the plant, they teach the 12 steps for those with addiction issues. When anyone asks for help, someone will offer support during their lunch break.

“It’s very imperative to connect with somebody, because you’re not alone,” she said.

Buckler advises people new to the local assembly plant to develop tight friendships with others who transferred from the same location.

That’s what about 500 Janesville workers did when they transferred to Kansas City, Hammer said. They created their own golf league, arranged carpools and other activities.

Buckler, who routinely offers hugs and support to transfers and temps, gets that sense of belonging through Local 2209. The union raises money for nonprofit and community organizations including the United Way of Allen County, the March of Dimes, The Make-A-Wish Foundation and various youth sports teams.

Members also collected almost $1,000 for a temp who had heart surgery and sent a semitrailer filled with bottled water to Flint, Michigan, during its water crisis.

TOUGH TRADE-OFFS

Randy Rader, a second-shift material handler in the new body shop, has learned to rely on coworkers for support.

“We all come from different backgrounds, but we’ve all been through the same things,” he said.

The 47-year-old Navy veteran, who transferred to Fort Wayne in September 2018, is two years sober. But it hasn’t been easy.

“When you get off work, there’s nothing to do, so it’s easy just to sit there and drink,” he said.

Rader was hired at the Lordstown plant in January 2012. He shares a local apartment with his brother during the week and drives home to Ohio every weekend.

He is the father of a high school junior and senior and a 10-year-old daughter with Down syndrome who is non-verbal. Before the transfer, he was her primary caretaker.

Rader’s son is starting defensive end and co-captain for his high school football team. His daughter is in concert choir. So Rader commutes the 266 miles to Youngstown every time he has a day off.

“I couldn’t make them move,” he said. “I couldn’t do it.”

Sherry Slater is a reporter for The Journal Gazette, Fort Wayne, Ind. This story was first published in that newspaper, http://www.journalgazette.net/news/local/20190811/gm-transfers-tell-moving-stories .

sslater@jg.net