Automakers' bailout or not, Kokomo, Ind., fears end of era

Today, Chrysler is one of three survivors of the 2,000. People in Kokomo wonder for how long.

Last week, people who never watch C-SPAN spent hours tuned to the congressional hearings on a proposed bailout, rooting for the Big Three and the United Auto Workers union as if they were the beloved Indianapolis Colts. "First time I ever watched that channel without falling asleep," smiled Rick Davidson, a retired financial adviser. All around town, from the plant floor to Starbucks, scenarios are spun out, debated and debunked. What if GM merges with Chrysler? What if Chrysler is sold to Nissan? What if Chrysler folds?

"When you get to work, it's, 'What'd you hear today?' We try to guess what's gonna happen," says Terri Mutran, 47, a quality-control worker who has 14 years at Chrysler's transmission plant.

People once secure in Kokomo's auto-born prosperity are cutting back. Some are pawning valuables, selling blood or attending high school games and performances for discount entertainment. Last weekend an annual televised auction to benefit several local charities raised $191,000, compared with $318,000 in 2007. "You can feel the belt-tightening," says David Galvin, a mayoral aide.

Vasicek, the minister, says some of his parishioners complain of insomnia. Even he is worried. Although the church is in good shape financially, he wonders what would happen to contributions if one of the plants went down. He works for God, he says, "but in a way we all work for the car companies."

It would be nice if Komoko diversified, but "that's easier said than done," VanAlstine says. For one thing, companies scouting new business locations tend to regard union towns skeptically.

Some people feel helpless, as if no matter what they do — how hard they work, how many times they write their Congress members — they can't control their fate. VanAlstine says layoffs over the past few years have produced a pessimism bordering on defeatism about the auto industry: "People have the sense that if this goes one way, it'll turn out badly, and if it goes another way, it'll also turn out badly." So some are changing direction.

Applications at Ivy Tech Community College are up 26% this fall. Susan Maxson, an administrator, says many applicants are autoworkers or former autoworkers scared into seeking "the college education they thought they'd never need."

They include Penny Wisler, 47, and son Eric Dockery, 28. She hopes to become a surgical technician; he'll study automotive technology to learn to fix cars.

Two years ago, they were delighted when, with the help of referrals from autoworker relatives, they landed jobs at the Delphi auto parts plant. She made hybrid batteries; he worked in shipping and receiving. They expected to retire from the plant.

But in October, they each accepted $40,000 buyouts from Delphi, which filed for bankruptcy in 2005 and has yet to emerge.

Temporary layoffs were always part of auto factory work, but this was different. "They told me, 'You better take the money, 'cause you're not gonna get called back,' " Eric says. "You knew your head was on the cuttin' block."

And he knew why. On shift after shift, he says, he'd loaded equipment from the Delphi assembly line onto trucks headed for another plant in Mexico.

A new attitude

Bumper stickers here once read "Hungry? Eat your import!" Today, some in Kokomo openly oppose a government bailout.

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