Michigan town braces for auto plant to close as Democrats debate labor issues

WARREN, Mich. — Patrick Anderson has spent 25 years working for General Motors, most recently at the company’s transmission factory here. In a little over a month, he will see a plant he worked for close for the third time.

Anderson’s father and grandfather worked for automakers as well, enjoying good paying jobs and stability, he said. Now Anderson tells his kids to steer clear of that kind of work.

“It’s not the dream job it used to be,” Anderson, 47, said before his 12-hour shift that begins each day at 2:30 p.m. “It’s actually quite a nightmare to try and survive and reach your pension. It feels impossible.”

The 261 hourly workers who help operate this plant build car transmissions, but just after Thanksgiving they found out from news reports that GM planned to close their 2.1 million square-foot factory that the company has run since 1958.

GM plans to keep its transmission plant in Mexico open instead.

Patrick Anderson has relocated three times because of plant shut downs.Ali Lapetina / for NBC News

It’s these labor issues — the loss of manufacturing, imbalance between corporations and workers and growing income inequality — that gained some attention during the first Democratic presidential debates on Wednesday and Thursday.

General Motors announced in the fall that it planned to cut costs by eliminating 14,000 jobs and save $6 billion by 2020. That decision comes almost exactly 10 years after the U.S. Treasury provided the company a $51 billion bailout.

General Motors is the largest employer here in Macomb County — carmakers Chrysler and Ford are two other major job producers for the area. The company’s restructuring and the plight of union workers received a specific callout during Wednesday’s debate when Ohio Congressman Tim Ryan spoke of the GM plant that closed in Lordstown, Ohio, in March.

“General Motors got a tax cut,” Ryan said on the debate stage. “General Motors got a bailout. And then they have the audacity to move a new car they’re going to produce to Mexico?”

“Our representatives really need to sit down and think about where America is going to be if we don’t stop the bleeding.”

Many other candidates — including Jay Inslee, Elizabeth Warren, John Delaney, Bernie Sanders, Andrew Yang and others — mentioned the plight of manufacturing workers in the United States and the need for the next president to directly address that challenge.

Regina Duley is a third-generation assembly line worker and has been with General Motors for 21 years.Ali Lapetina / for NBC News

Inslee and Delaney talked about the need for strong unions and collective bargaining, while many others discussed the opportunity to replace the lost automotive manufacturing with clean energy industries.

Workers here in Macomb had few illusions about the distance between those visions and reality, however. Many said that no matter who wins the election in 2020 — Republican or Democrat — they need real action from politicians and not empty promises.

“I just want them to stop selling us a dream,” said Regina Duley, 53, an autoworker at the Warren transmission plant. “They all go in there and say the same thing. Don’t talk about it: be about it.”

GM promised to place many of those workers at new job sites, but with only weeks until this factory finally shutters, the United Auto Workers said employees are still waiting for answers.

“It gives a lot of anxiety to our membership — the uncertainty,” said Ghana Goodwin-Dye, 56, the president of UAW Local 909.

Even if some are still able to find work, it’s the prospect of moving, of leaving their home and potentially their families that is a major sticking point with workers here, said Korey Benson, a 12-year veteran of this auto plant where he started his career.

“That’s the most unnerving and unsettling thing: to make a decision to go out of state and leave my wife and children here,” Benson said. “Maybe see them on the weekend. Maybe see them on a holiday. I have an 8-year-old son who loves his dad. I coach his football team. I wouldn’t be able to do that anymore.”

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