Generations of GM Workers Reach End of Line

Out of a job, GM autoworkers try to pick up the pieces and start fresh.

July 7, 2009— -- From blow torches to robots, the generations of GM employees who stood on the assembly line for 10 or more hours a day, sacrificing time with family -- and sometimes even physical health -- were the embodiment of the American blue collar worker.

Striving for the middle class American dream, their hard work, commitment and sacrifice makes one thing clear: the downfall of General Motors is felt deepest in its heart.

"It was one of the biggest companies in the world, what better place could you work?" said Larry Cox, who worked at GM's truck and SUV plant in Moraine, Ohio, for 31 years before retiring in 1999.

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For Cox and the thousands of other workers stationed at GM plants across the country, working for the automaker was a ticket to a comfortable middle class life, in areas sometimes lacking for other opportunities.

"You could graduate high school and go work at GM and have a great life, and a great income for your family, a very stable career," said David Hicks, a lifetime area resident and current Moraine city manager.

It was also as a family tradition. "You know, a lot of family worked there. My dad worked at the same plant at the time and when I got in the work force and I knew I didn't have the opportunity to go to college, so I decided to go to GM. I was extremely proud to work for GM," said Cox.

In 1951, the Moraine plant began operating, building Frigidaire appliances in its early days, before the massive 4.4 million-square-foot complex was converted to build GM trucks and SUVs. During its heyday the plant employed more than 4,000 workers.

Despite hitting the 6 million vehicle mark in production in 2007, the Moraine plant along with 13 others was shut down two days before Christmas 2008.

"There was a lot of crying, I mean, you didn't know if you were going to see the people again, people that you've been with for 12 years," said Jason Lewis, who worked the assembly line in the plant's trim department.

In an interview with ABC News, Lewis, along with his wife, Stevie, and co-workers Chad Lloyd, Mike Malone and Greg Cummins said that family tradition and promise of a nice steady income played a role in bringing them to GM.

"I was hired on March 13th, 1995, and my dad retired from there, grandpa, every male in my family was there from the start of it," said Lloyd.

"My mom worked there for 37 years, so I was kind of raised on GM," said Stevie Lewis. "I was 19 and I bought my house and was like, 'Oh, what other job around here is going to pay my house payment?' I had a nice car at 19, a house, what other 19-year-old has that?"

Repetitiveness of Assembly Line Wears on Workers

Yet, to earn that house and car wasn't a walk in the park, and these workers scoff at the notion that line workers are paid good salaries to do easy work.

"People would say you work at GM, you've got it made. You've got your insurance, your big money, you don't do anything. But they don't understand we're there 10 hours a day, doing the same thing 640 times a night. It wears on you, body, physically, mentally, everything," Cummins said.

"The constant scrapes and bruises and broken bones, being away from our families," Lloyd said. "I've broken every one of my fingers at GM and didn't even go to the doctor for it, just taped it up and went back to work. I mean, I went for eight years without missing one day. And the day that I did miss, my one daughter was born."

"I didn't even miss a day when my daughter was born," said Jason Lewis.

The grueling repetitiveness of standing on the line wore at the workers, even while they slept.

"I've dreamt many times the lines running and I'm trying to throw mufflers and I'm like 'hey, somebody's got to slow this down. I can't even keep up.' Then I wake up like, oh, I've still got three hours of sleep," Cummins said.

"It's like muscle memory. There are times I'd wake up out of a dead sleep, and my hands would be how I am at work, like I was doing my job," said Jason Lewis.

Despite the broken bones and nightmares, the plant closing left these workers with a modest buyout package, and a hole in their lives, shocked that the backbone of the Dayton area for so many generations would no longer be there.

"When the plant closed, I still found myself getting ready about 2 o'clock, getting in the shower, and then just sitting there like, 'I don't have anything to do," Lloyd said.

"The thought of not going in there no more, and not knowing what you were going to do afterwards, it's a weird feeling. It's the first time I've ever been without a job," said Jason Lewis.

Town Struggles: How to Bring in New Jobs

Not only did the plant closing impact the workers, but it was also the economic furnace for the entire Dayton area -- an area now reeling as it tries to find an industry to fill the gap and get back thousands of jobs.

"We're still feeling effects from [the plant closing], honestly. There was, of course, an immediate impact, GM and their suppliers represent more than 20 percent of our income through income tax," said Hicks.

Hicks, the former police chief of Moraine, now has the weight of the region on his shoulders. As the city manager of Moraine, his task is to salvage the plant and bring a new company and jobs to the space.

"We have a lot of talented people in this area that can build a product, we just have to identify what that product is and bring it in so they can begin building it," said Hicks, who is trying to stem the ripple effect of job loss before it devastates the community.

Ripple Effect: Business Shutter on Front Lines of Moraine

The doctors' offices in Moraine have fired physician's assistants because so many people immediately lost health care, and bars and restaurants are laying off staff due to the loss of a steady lunch and dinner crowd.

"It's all the trickledown effect. Anytime you lose traffic and people in the area, it's going to affect you in some way shape or form. The strong will survive and the rest will have to find another way," said Vincent Nyhan, who runs a neighborhood restaurant, Vinny's Bar and Grill, and says he has seen a 25 percent drop in business.

In neighboring Miamisburg, Michelle Collins runs a real estate business with her mother, which was fueled by the GM plant and those who supported it. Now, she deals regularly with clients who are desperate to unload unmanageable mortgage payments, as well as abandoned and foreclosed homes -- once a rarity in the area.

"It's tragic to see people at the ball park and at the grocery store and know that they're struggling. I guess in my business I know it a little more than other people do," she said. "Having a foreclosed property on my block was not anything we ever thought about. Now there's not a neighborhood in this city that's isolated from a foreclosure."

Recently, Collins repurchased a home her parents bought for her when she was just beginning to work as a real estate agent.

"In 1988 at $35,000, we got a heck of a deal. The next year we sold it, I think, for $50,500. In '09, I just repurchased the property for $21,000," she said. "It's very easy to pick up a $20,000 house right now. You can pay less for a house than you pay for a car."

Collins said the hardest part for her is walking into a foreclosed home and seeing signs of the children that used to live there.

"I go in and show these foreclosed properties and I walk in the pink bedroom with the Hannah Montana border or an obvious boy's bedroom and their toys are still there and we all have to realize there were kids in that house, that one day they just had to move. Maybe they didn't get to tell their friends down the road goodbye or know why they were moving, or maybe they didn't even know and they were just taken out in the middle of the night. That's a part of this whole process that is maybe being forgotten," she said.

Losing Plant Takes Toll on Families

The loss of the Moraine plant has also been hard on families. Malone took his buyout before the Moraine plant closed, and his teenage son and daughter, Jeremy and Courtney, now have a very hard life lesson to deal with.

"With GM being out, my dad can't get any money, so we can't do the things we usually do," said Jeremy, 16.

Only teens, they're now saddled with a bleak future. Mike Malone had hoped to get Jeremy a job at the plant when he turned 18. Now they are working at getting him into college.

"You can't pick up a job in a factory anymore. You have to have a college education to really survive. You can't work at fast food, you can't pay your bills working at Taco Bell," Malone said.

Even with college now in the picture and his father's optimism, Jeremy's pain at watching his father lose his job and his town crumble around him is raw.

"I really didn't know what to think at first, you know, I didn't think it would affect me, but turns out it did. A lot of my friends can't go to school anymore because their parents can't pay for it," he said. "I never expected much from life, which makes it easier to deal with the hard times. That way, if you expect something great and you don't get it, you're not sad about it. But I'm hoping for a pretty good future."

'Little Detroit' Workers Optimistic, but Point Fingers at Detroit

Next to a rusted, weed-chocked rail yard and a vast empty parking lot, the Moraine GM plant squats, a hollow shell casting a shadow across a town once known as "Little Detroit." A brighter future is all that can be hoped for as the former workers, and town, get back on their feet.

"I stress every day about our bills," said Stevie Lewis, who now goes to school to become a nurse. Her husband Jason is thinking about going to school for welding, along with former co-worker Chad Lloyd.

"I stress but I try to put on a good face for the family and the kids. I realize I've got to move on, I know my goals and what my aims are, I've got to achieve," Lloyd said.

Yet, their anger at the downfall of General Motors lingers, pointed squarely at Detroit.

"We were definitely sold down the river. It's Detroit, the main guys. The guys in the suits, they got so greedy and made their money, made their money, and forgot about us people," Lloyd said.

"We had record losses but Wagoner still gets a $10 million bonus. How does that work? It amazes me that they can even sleep at night," said Jason Lewis.