With Economy in a Tailspin, Autoworker Is Looking for Inspiration

David Ruppert, 53, a lifelong Democrat and General Motors employee, is traveling with his family to Washington for the inauguration.
David Ruppert, 53, a lifelong Democrat and General Motors employee, is traveling with his family to Washington for the inauguration. (By Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)
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By Alejandro Lazo
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 13, 2009

David Ruppert grew up in Detroit, where cars and politics were family staples. His father was a Chrysler lineman and active in the United Auto Workers union. Ruppert remembers riding through city streets in his father's Chrysler New Yorker and shouting into a megaphone, "Vote HHH," for Hubert H. Humphrey in the 1968 election.

Forty years later, the lifelong Democrat and General Motors employee and his family are being battered by a recession, with less overtime work, layoffs and fewer luxuries. But Ruppert says he believes President-elect Barack Obama will be able to restore some optimism in a moment of deep pessimism. The union representative at the GM Powertrain plant in White Marsh plans to drive with his wife and children to Washington from Perry Hall, Md., for the inauguration.

Ruppert said he will need that inspiration amid the heavy toll the slumping economy has taken. With auto sales plummeting, his GM plant, which makes transmissions for heavy-duty Silverado trucks and other vehicles, laid off two-thirds of its workforce, or about 250 people. He said the plant's high level of productivity in past years let him grow accustomed to working overtime hours for overtime pay. But that's long gone.

His two sons lost their jobs at an Ace Hardware store and a Walgreen's this year and moved back home because they could no longer afford their apartment. His daughter has also moved back home after living on her own, although she still has her job at a KFC. Ruppert's wife, Sheri, has multiple sclerosis, and the couple's insurance does not cover all of her doctor visits.

The increased expenses and lost pay have meant cutting back on designer clothes and brand-name sneakers. Trips to see the Orioles and the Ravens are out of the equation. So are expensive vacations. But the Rupperts know their situation is not unique.

"There are a lot of people suffering," Sheri Ruppert said.

"People we have known for years are losing their houses left and right and [are] scared of what the future might hold -- and it shouldn't be that way after working so hard for so many years."

David Ruppert has hope that the U.S. auto industry will survive and that Obama will be able to fulfill his promises once he takes power.

"I am hoping that they give him the space to do what he wants to do," he said.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company