Autoworker upheaval: Families split, children left behind
By JOHN SEEWER, Associated Press
TOLEDO, Ohio (AP) — Hundreds of workers at four General Motors plants slated to close by January are facing a painful choice: Take the company’s offer to work at another factory — possibly hundreds of miles away — even if that means leaving behind their families, their homes and everything they’ve built. Or stay and risk losing their high-paying jobs.
The automaker says nearly all of its blue-collar U.S. workers with jobs in jeopardy have work waiting for them. Many from the targeted factories in Michigan, Ohio and Maryland already have voluntarily transferred to plants in the Midwest and South, not wanting to take a chance.
Others are still agonizing over the decision, unsure whether to sell their homes or hang onto hopes that their plants might reopen.
The automaker says the changes announced in November are needed to cut costs and put money into new vehicles. The plant closings still must be negotiated with the union, giving workers a sliver of hope.
A CHESS MATCH
Anthony Sarigianopoulos has put in 25 years at GM’s plant in Lordstown, Ohio, where the last Chevrolet Cruze will roll off the assembly line sometime later this month.
He has two sons in elementary school and an ex-wife he gets along with, and his parents are just down the street in the Youngstown suburb where he grew up.
Sarigianopoulos, who checks and fixes cars at the end of the line, knows he is fortunate to have a shot at a job even if it’s somewhere else — unlike most of the 8,000 white-collar employees GM is laying off and those who are losing jobs at the automaker’s nearby parts suppliers.
But he also doesn’t want to move and miss out on ballgames and school concerts, knowing that his boys will be almost out of high school by the time he retires.
Volunteering to leave now for another plant would also mean he couldn’t come back if Lordstown reopened. But if he is forced to transfer once the plant closes, the option to return would still be open under his union contract.
“That’s part of the chess match,” he said.
So Sarigianopoulos, 48, filled a notebook with charts and graphs outlining the pros and cons of transferring. What he has decided for now — unless he’s forced to transfer — is to stay and hope the plant will get a new vehicle to build.
CAR RIDE AWAY
Andrea Repasky didn’t have much of a choice. Even if it meant saying goodbye to her elderly parents, a niece she loves dearly, her favorite pizza place and her mom’s wedding soup.
She had to keep her job because she is a breast cancer survivor and runs the risk of the disease coming back. “I couldn’t afford to let my health benefits run out,” she said.
So the 42-year-old team leader at the plant volunteered to leave the Youngstown area for a new job in Indiana, allowing her to stay closer to home instead of being shipped to a plant in Tennessee or Texas.
“That was my goal, to be a car ride away if something, God forbid, happened to my family,” she said.
Repasky has been working for just over a month at GM’s truck plant in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where she shares an apartment with a friend who also transferred there.
While she desperately misses her family and everything about her hometown, she said her decision was easier because she isn’t married and has no children. Some coworkers moved without their children so that the youngsters could stay behind and finish the school year.
“I cry when I think about it,” Repasky said. “How do they explain to their kids that Mommy or Daddy is leaving and they’ll see you on the weekends?”
Tiffany Davis feels the stress of it all both at home and at the lone elementary school in Lordstown where she teaches fifth grade.
The students know they will be saying goodbye to some of their classmates in a few months. That includes three out of the 18 in her class.
“They aren’t the spunky, lighthearted crew they were at the beginning of the year,” said Davis, 35.
She and her husband, who has worked on the GM assembly line 17 years, talk almost every night about what to do next.
“It has taken over our lives, but how couldn’t it?” Davis said. “It’s draining, it’s exhausting. No matter what decision we make, we’re worried it will be the wrong thing.”
The couple decided not to take a transfer for now. But they are selling their house and moving with their two children into her mother-in-law’s attic so they won’t be paying for two homes if they are forced to go. They also canceled a summer vacation and cut out cable TV and pizza nights on Friday.
“We’re uprooting our entire lives right now because we don’t have any answers,” she said. “We know that no matter happens we will have to follow GM.”
THE RIGHT DECISION
Nearly two decades after founding the New Beginnings Outreach Ministries in Youngstown, Ohio, Melvin Trent stood before about 150 members of his church in early February and told them he was leaving.
His wife, an engineer with GM, was being sent to its SUV plant in Arlington, Texas.
“You could hear people crying throughout the congregation. One person said, ‘It feels like when my mother died,'” he said. “For some, I’ve been the only pastor they’ve known.”
His wife already has moved, and he will join her after their son graduates from high school in May. “We’ve never been apart like this,” he said.
Trent, 55, who retired after 35 years with the automaker, said it was a “no-brainer” to accept the relocation but not an easy decision.
“The first thing I did was go to the church, and I cried like a baby because I was leaving something I birthed and something I loved,” he said. “But it was the right decision for our family.”
He added: “I’m leaving not my natural family but my church family.”
Associated Press writer Tom Krisher in Detroit contributed.