GM closing Boxwood Road, last auto plant in Delaware

ByMaureen Milford, The (Wilmington) News Journal
July 12, 2009, 8:38 PM

WILMINGTON, Del. -- Joe Trincia, 51, of Bear, Del., returns Monday to his job at the General Motors auto-assembly plant just as he's done countless times since he was a 19-year-old kid lucky enough to land a decent-paying manufacturing job.

But this will be his last recall. He joins just 414 other workers for the final two weeks of the Boxwood Road plant.

"I'll miss the people," said Trincia, who is raising his grandchildren and needs another job. "I was a young guy for so long and then suddenly I'm one of the oldest guys here."

When the plant's lights go out for good the week of July 27, it will mark the end of Delaware's long ties to carmaking, an industry that leaders at DuPont here had a major role creating.

After 62 years, an industry that once was the state's second-largest private employer, behind DuPont, vaporized in less than eight months. Chrysler shuttered its massive assembly plant in Newark, Del., in December, a few months before it sought bankruptcy protection.

GM, which got out of bankruptcy court Friday, announced in June it would close the complex near Newport, Del., opened in 1947.

"It is the end of an era. And it is the end of the Northeast's exposure to the auto industry," said Sophia Koropeckyj, managing director of Moody's "It's the loss of the ability to maintain a manufacturing base in the area."

Jolted by back-to-back closings

The plants faced threats periodically since the 1970s, but the rapid demise of both is stunning.

"It's kinda like having a parent that's really sick. You might know they're going to die ... but when the end comes it's a shock," said John Stapleford, senior economist at Moody's

The fallout won't be as severe as in Michigan, Ohio or Indiana, but there'll be pain. The GM plant alone is a $182 million-a-year economic engine, the Delaware Economic Development Office estimates. And Delaware is a small state, with not a lot more people than the metro area of Dayton, Ohio.

The loss of several thousand high-pay manufacturing jobs came as Delaware already was in its biggest economic restructuring in a century.

"Without a doubt the plant closings hurt because they're on top of layoffs in so many other industries — in retail and wholesale and professional services. It adds up," said George Sharpley, labor market economist with the Delaware Department of Labor. "It was a very big part of our economy."

In 1985, transportation equipment manufacturing employed nearly 10,000 people and represented nearly 3% of the state's employment. By the end of 2008, that sector was down to 2,700 jobs, Sharpley says. The Chrysler plant, opened in 1952, employed 5,500 in 1978. When it shut down in December, 1,125 workers lost their jobs.

Also in 2008, employment dropped in 12 of 18 other major sectors from the previous year, with jobs in financial services, an employment engine in the 1980s and 1990s, declining nearly 2%.

In an earlier time, generous auto pay and benefits let generations of Delaware workers share the American dream. Autoworkers bought homes, educated their children and retired in the community. GM, practicing what it called a "good neighbor policy," even sold part of its original land to a builder in 1950 for homes for autoworkers.

Ed Kozicki, 82, who lives in the Keystone neighborhood near the GM plant, worked there "during the good years" from 1978 to 1991. When he landed a job installing taillights, he more than tripled his income from his previous job supervising more than 40 people in a leather plant.

"I hit the jackpot. The benefits were terrific. It gave me a good life, my goodness, a very good life. I even had a property down at the beach," he said.

Now, when Kozicki drives by the plant, it feels "like a void" in his life, he said.

Losses beyond the plant gates

Workers spent their pay with local merchants.

For 35 years, Ken and Jim Malin rang up sales from workers from the Chrysler plant less than a mile away, as well as from the now-closed Mopar parts distribution center and auto supplier Lear's plant. With the loss of the auto jobs, Malin's Market had to lay off people.

"It's an avalanche going downhill. It's really getting bad out there. I haven't seen it this bad — ever," Ken Malin said.

Beyond dollars, autoworkers participated in their kids' Little Leagues, volunteered at non-profits, ran for school boards and stood for public office.

"That's what you call 'social capital,' " Stapleford said. "Volunteers are a substantial contributor to the quality of life."

Jim Wolfe, plant manager of the Chrysler assembly operation for 12 years, recalled how the workers would load Chrysler vehicles with holiday toys to deliver to children.

"Good, solid, stable jobs allow people to contribute to the community," Wolfe said.

While many autoworkers can retire without having to "pinch pennies," they have years of productive ability left, Koropeckyj said. "It's the loss of human potential."

The challenge for the state will be finding jobs that make good use of their skills, she said. "The future is a little dimmer for high school graduates who are not going on to college."

When Trincia walks out for the last time later this month, however, he'll do so without bitterness.

"I have no complaints about GM," Trincia said. "I had a great run at the plant."

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