Anger Grips Auto Workers

By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 13, 2008

SPRING HILL, TENN., Dec. 12 -- As the workers and residents of this small town that launched the Saturn automobile see it, there are several villains in the collapse of the automakers' rescue plan.

But what stuns many in this place defined by the General Motors auto plant and its 4,200 workers is that no person played a larger role in the demise of autoworker hopes than their own Sen. Bob Corker (R), who is now regarded by some here with the kind of disdain reserved for traitors.

Corker emerged as one of the leading critics of the rescue plan passed by the House. He lashed into the carmaker chief executives when they came to Washington looking for help. And it was Corker's alternative proposal, which was a plan that would have been tougher on union workers, that ultimately failed.

In a dozen interviews with workers here, many suspected that he only feigned interest in rescuing Detroit's Big Three. Instead, they say, he wants to crush GM and its union to benefit foreign automakers, such Nissan and Volkswagen, who have opened or are opening nonunionized plants in the state.

"We're deeply disappointed in Senator Corker -- that's the official statement," said Mike Herron, union chief at the GM plant here. "But actually my members want to choke him."

The anger of the workers and the harshness of their words reflect the larger tension between the old Detroit-based domestic auto industry, with its unionized workforce, and the new transplant industry in the nonunion South. Emotions were stoked by the fact that GM, citing the economic downturn, had just announced that it will halt production at the plant for January and the first week of February.

Corker "has somehow ignored the fact that there's a major GM plant in his own state," said Ben McFarlane, who retired from the plant this summer and opened a local bar where many workers go. "And if this plant goes, then my business goes, this whole town goes, and the effects cascade across the country."

At a news conference and in interviews yesterday, Corker, a millionaire real estate developer, took pains to depict himself as sympathetic to workers and responsive to his state's interests.

"I was a member of a union as a young man, a card-carrying union member," he noted at a Capitol Hill news conference. "My company that I started when I was 25 employed large numbers of union workers -- carpenters, laborers and others."

He said that while he initially thought the best route for the struggling auto companies was to go into bankruptcy, he changed his mind and drafted a plan for a federal rescue intended to help make the companies more competitive by bringing average union salaries in line with those at nonunion plants.

In an interview, he dismissed theories that he was trying to help foreign automakers. Those companies would also suffer if one of Detroit's Big Three collapsed because of the stress it would cause in the automakers' supply chain, he said. He added that none of the e-mails and other contacts he had received from foreign automakers urged him to block a rescue.

"Anybody that has any knowledge of the industry knows that that idea is farcical," he said in an interview. "These guys [foreign and domestic automakers] are interdependent on each other."

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company