Auto Official to Focus on Displaced Workers

By Dana Hedgpeth and Kendra Marr
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, April 2, 2009

Former deputy labor secretary Edward Montgomery, President Obama's new point man to help towns harmed by the collapse of the auto industry, said yesterday that he's going to focus his efforts on helping displaced workers get such services as extended health-care benefits, income support and retraining.

Montgomery met for three hours yesterday behind closed doors with Michigan Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm (D) and a dozen of her top officials who deal with energy, social services, health care and economic development to learn about the troubles the state faces because of the shrinking U.S. auto industry.

"My job is to cut the red tape," Montgomery said in a press conference after his meetings in Lansing, Mich. Montgomery and other administration officials said he would look at existing government programs, examine legislation that could extend to auto workers benefits usually reserved for those who lose their jobs when industries shift overseas and use money in the $787 billion stimulus program to help auto workers.

Montgomery, who was named Monday to serve as the director of recovery for auto communities and workers, said he's familiar with the plight of auto workers because his wife's family lives in Portland, Mich., and her grandfather, father, brother and uncle have all worked in the auto industry.

"I understand what the auto industry means to Michigan," he said, citing his upbringing in Pittsburgh, a steel town. "This is something the president is committed to having -- a strong, viable auto industry in America, and to helping Michigan and folks there deal with the situation we're currently going through." He said Granholm laid out how the state's unemployment and poverty rates have soared as jobs in the auto industry have been cut. "You hear it in numbers," Montgomery said. "You see it in faces. The president was very clear that we feel a sense of urgency to do something. It is my objective to move expeditiously and quickly in a way that is effective."

Granholm said her state had been trying to win the attention of the federal government for several years. "This is the first time we have had this kind of offer of help," she said.

Montgomery also met yesterday with Detroit Mayor Kenneth V. Cockrel Jr. (D) and some of his top officials. Montgomery was expected to return last night to Washington, where he said he plans to start meeting with officials in the Labor, Commerce, Transportation and Energy departments to "come up with strategies." He said his job was not to "deal with negotiations over a viability plan" for how to restructure the auto companies but to help communities that are dealing with the industry's downturn.

"We need to focus the resources of the federal government on helping those families," he said. "This is not going to be a problem that is solved overnight. We recognize that we need to start acting, and that's our commitment."

Montgomery will report to the White House's auto industry task force but plans to work closely with Labor Secretary Hilda L. Solis and maintain an office at the Labor Department.

Montgomery is taking a leave from his job as a professor of economics and dean of the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences at the University of Maryland. He previously served as deputy labor secretary under President Clinton.

While assembly plants are mainly concentrated in the Midwest and the South, the auto industry is a powerful force in the U.S. economy. GM and Chrysler employ about 132,000 people in the United States, and their supply chain employs another 500,000. Over the past decade, GM and Chrysler have made deep cuts to try to keep up with their more nimble foreign rivals, like Toyota and Honda, and boost their shrinking market share. Montgomery is planning to visit places in states like Michigan, Ohio and Indiana, which have suffering auto industries.

Officials in Flint, Mich., which has been especially hard hit, said they'd welcome a visit from Montgomery. In the 1970s and 1980s, about 80,000 residents were employed in the auto industry. Now 8,000 of the city's 125,000 people work in it.

"The fact there's someone in Washington paying close attention to this is a positive development," said Bob Campbell, a city spokesman. "Having someone at the federal level where you can pick up the phone and say, 'We have this idea; how can you help?' That will be very positive."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company