washingtonpost.com > Business > Local Business

Va. Plant's Closing Brings Little Surprise, Lots of Pain

By Dana Hedgpeth and V. Dion Haynes
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, June 2, 2009

In the global galaxy of General Motors' sprawling manufacturing operations, the small plant in Fredericksburg, Va., about 58 miles south of Washington, was never a major player.

The factory once employed about 300 workers who made torque converter clutch plates for four- and six-speed transmissions. But its workforce has been trimmed over the past few years. It now has 68 hourly employees working only one shift because GM is phasing out the four-speed transmission system that relies on the part.

As it filed for bankruptcy protection yesterday, GM said the Fredericksburg plant is one of more than a dozen facilities across the country, including ones in Wilmington, Del., Grand Rapids, Mich., and Parma, Ohio, that will close in the coming years as the company tries to cuts costs and operate more efficiently.

Ultimately, GM hopes to cut the number of its facilities from 47 to 33 by 2012, a move that will affect 18,000 to 20,000 workers, company executives said.

The closings prompted protests by state lawmakers, members of Congress and civic leaders around the country. For the next three days, nearly a dozen of President Obama's cabinet members and Ed Montgomery, his point man on helping auto communities and workers recover, are expected to travel to Michigan, Indiana, Ohio and Wisconsin to hear the concerns of workers and local leaders.

In Fredericksburg, many workers said they have long expected the plant to be on the closure list. The news still hit hard; the plant is scheduled to shut down by December 2010.

"It was like a brick being thrown through a glass plate window," said Louis Perkinson, 58, who has worked at the GM plant for 28 years and learned of the closure during the morning shift as a manager read from a prepared statement. "His hands were trembling and shaking, as he read," Perkinson said. "Hearing it made you realize . . . it's real."

GM executives said the fact that the automaker is moving away from producing four-speed automatic transmissions is not the only reason the Fredericksburg plant is closing. The factory also is relatively far from the other plants that use its parts, in places such as Toledo, Warren, Mich., and Windsor, Ontario, thus creating inefficiencies.

"It would be very expensive to run that one product from there," said Sharon Basel, a GM spokeswoman.

Collectively, the closings reflect the new direction GM is moving. The assembly plant scheduled to close in Wilmington, Del., for example, puts together Saturns and Pontiacs, two brands that GM plans to eliminate.

The GM plant in Fredericksburg, a city of roughly 22,000, sits along a road called Tidewater Trail in a suburban area, a few miles off Interstate 95. Next door, there's a low-slung office park with empty storefronts and across the street sits a country club's golf course and a housing development with neatly manicured yards and white fences.

At the nearby Tidewater Tire Center, less than half a mile down the road, mechanic Cody Sorrow broke the news to his father, George, who has worked as an electrician at the GM plant for 28 years and 9 months.

"They're closed, Dad," Cody told him when he came in. His dad shrugged, and said as long as his retirement pension wasn't cut, he would be okay.

"GM doesn't owe me a thing," said George Sorrow, 51, who is the father of four kids. "They provided for me for many years. I had a decent wage, good benefits."

"I'll look for a job to get by," he said.

As workers left the GM plant yesterday afternoon, several fretted about how hard it could be to find a job in a city with an unemployment rate of 10 percent -- among the highest in the region.

"After being here 28 years, it wasn't easy hearing the news -- but what can you do?" said John Sims, 54, of Spotsylvania County, who works on the assembly line. "We made money. It's no use pointing a finger. I'll have to do the best I can to find a job."

Lois Doles, president of the United Auto Workers affiliate that represents the plant, said she is concerned about the effect the bankruptcy will have on retirement funds.

"That's the scary thing -- as long as they don't touch the pension we will be fine," said Doles, who has worked at the plant for 25 years.

She said her options aren't great. She could either seek a transfer to another GM plant that is about two hours away or try her luck in the tight job market in Fredericksburg.

"It's hard to get a good job now," said Jacqueline Lewis, a 50-year-old production worker.

Staff writer Kendra Marr contributed to this report from New York.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company