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

Peter Heck, 29, is a high school history teacher and conservative radio talk-show host who believes federal aid for Detroit is throwing good money after bad. "I hate to say it," he says, "but those companies have to suffer the consequences. A market without failure is no market at all." He's torn because many of his students' parents and fellow church members work for Chrysler or Delphi. But he hasn't gotten any hate mail.

Steve Cox, who teaches finance and accounting at Indiana University-Kokomo, was surprised recently when he organized a class debate on the bailout and its opponents won easily.

Cox says most students lack sympathy for blue-collar autoworkers, an attitude he summarizes as, "You can't expect to make $65,000 for a job you can learn in a month."

Out of such angst has arisen an unconventional idea: Kokomo, about as industrial and self-contained as a place can get, can reinvent itself as a "green city … the city of the future" — and maybe a quasi-suburb of Indianapolis.

These ideas come not from some crackpot but from Mayor Goodnight. He talks of attracting wind power and hybrid technology companies and of improving transportation links to metro Indianapolis, whose north side is booming. "We want to ride the auto industry as long as we can," he says. "But we also want to diversify."

'We're hoarding our money'

The Durhams are a UAW family. Mike, 41, is a fourth-generation autoworker; his wife, Tina, 37, is second-generation. They met at Chrysler and now have three children. Their commute to the plant from their spacious ranch house takes three minutes. He drives a Dodge Ram pickup; she, a Dodge Durango. Both get about 12 miles a gallon. "You gotta drive what you make," Mike Durham says.

They are worried. They see people like them, with 15 years at Chrysler, taking $100,000 buyouts rather than sticking it out. "With two Chrysler incomes, money was never an issue," Tina Durham says. But now, "People say, 'You have all your eggs in one basket!' "

So, she says, "We're hoarding our money." The whole family used to eat out five times a week; now, Tina and Mike go out once a week, alone. Tina buys generic brands and has cut back on sweets and snacks. In the past, the family took several vacations; next year, they'll take one. This Christmas they plan to spend half what they spent last year.

They feel that many Americans don't understand or appreciate the auto industry and its workers. "Congress gave money to the Wall Street bankers, so why not automobile factory workers?" Tina asks. She particularly resents criticism of Detroit's big cars: "I like my Durango. I feel safe, and I need room for the kids and their equipment."

Even in Kokomo, Mike figures a bailout is supported only by a slim majority, 60% at most. He suspects many are jealous of autoworkers' wages and benefits: "A lot of people think we're undereducated and overpaid."

The conversation around their dining room table stops when Mike and Tina are asked what they'd do if the plant closed. Mike, No. 1,023 in seniority, is stumped. "Wow," he says, rubbing his chin. "That's a tough call. Wow. Well … "

"We don't even talk about it," Tina says. But she's not worried. She's been active in the union, and earned a degree in organizational leadership from Purdue University's Kokomo program. She says she could make it in health care or a number of fields: "I'd hit the ground running."

Their 12-year-old son, Michael, is asked if he's going to be an autoworker, extending the streak to a fifth generation.

He shakes his head. "I'm going to run for political office," he says, decisively. "There's always going to be a government."

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