Even in Michigan, Not Everyone Wants a Lifeline

Even in Michigan, Not Everyone Wants a Lifeline http://tinyurl.com/6z8m3e
KALAMAZOO, Mich. — Wander Michigan’s cities and towns, and many residents offer the same message about the prospect of a $34 billion
bailout of America’s automakers: Please provide the help, not just for the sake of the automobile industry and its workers but for all the other people whose jobs are so intricately braided into the state’s autocentric economy.
But the quiet truth in Michigan, home of the Big Three manufacturers, is that the state is not of one voice on the matter.
Other opinions are alive, and they can be just as passionate in opposition to a rescue. This, even though neighbors or friends or parents may have once depended on the industry. This, though speaking for the bailout here is something akin to embracing the Great Lakes or apple pie, as evinced by the letter of support for it signed last month by all of Michigan’s Congressional delegation, Democrats and Republicans alike.
There have been no statewide opinion polls published on the bailout request, though with Michigan’s economy so tied to the industry, those for it undoubtedly outweigh those against, political, economic and polling experts suggest. Still, “there are plenty of people who are rolling their eyes,” said Bill Ballenger, editor of the closely followed newsletter Inside Michigan Politics.
“You keep your head down if you’re one of them, but they’re out there,” Mr. Ballenger said. “There are a lot of them.”
In interviews across the state over the last two weeks, criticism of the automakers’ request surfaced again and again. Many people said they had long watched Michigan’s economy strain and falter — in no few cases causing the collapse of their own employers and loss of their own jobs — and could no longer see why the Big Three should be singled out for rescue.
“How many other, small companies would like a bailout?” said Heather Davison, who lives in Davisburg, less than an hour north of Detroit, and has been unemployed for a year. “It seems to me that the car companies saw the banks getting a bailout and said, ‘Oh, let’s go!’ ”
Ms. Davison, 34, lost her job as a graphic designer for a real estate publication when the company she worked for failed. She said General Motors, Ford and Chrysler should have made changes to their cars and work force years ago.
“They should have made a car that was more efficient,” she said. “And how many G.M. vehicles are there out there? They should have thought of this, of the need to restructure, a long time ago.”
Like some others interviewed, Ms. Davison was unsparing as well in her criticism of the United Automobile Workers. “I’ve watched that Ron Gettelfinger on TV,” she said of the union’s president. “He talks about the need to restructure, but they needed to look at that a long time ago.”
John Raterink, a tool and machine maker who works at a small shop in Grand Rapids that supplies parts to the auto industry, opposes a bailout even though his livelihood is tethered to the car makers. Mr. Raterink, 46, points a finger at the Big Three for a lot of economic misery.
“I remember when G.M. shut down 11 plants, some of which were in the Great Lakes region,” he said. “They said, ‘We can’t afford to keep doing business like this.’ But do you know what happened at the upper echelon of G.M.? They got six-figure bonuses at the end of the year. It’s really hard to feel sorry for a company that’s lived so high on the hog.”
Mr. Raterink said he had seen dozens of machine shops like his disappear across western Michigan because of the outsourcing of work to other countries.
“If we look at thousands of workers in counties around here, they got no sympathy,” he said. “We got hurt, and we got hurt badly. As a result of their practices, I haven’t seen a raise in six years, and I’ve seen my health benefits decline.”
The Big Three’s share of the market has dropped 30 percentage points in the last 13 years, to some 44 percent. That plunge has had a ripple effect across the state, home to more than half the people employed nationwide by the Big Three.
Michigan can hardly afford it. The state’s economy has been in recession for years, with some experts convinced that it never emerged from the last national recession, in 2001.
The unemployment rate is 9.3 percent — tied with Rhode Island’s for the highest in the country — and the safety net of social services is stretched beyond ability to care for all of those in need. The total of Michigan residents who receive some form of public assistance, like food stamps or home heating credits, is now 1.82 million, or close to 20 percent of the population, a record for the state.
On top of all that, working people in Michigan are feeling the strain of higher taxes, a result of a state budget shortfall in 2007.
But though the failure of any of the auto companies could make life in Michigan harder still, opponents of the rescue stand firm, many convinced that any federal loan would provide only a temporary fix anyway.
“Do I think things could get worse?” Mr. Raterink said. “Absolutely. But bear in mind that we’ve already been dealing with this since the last quarter of ’99. If I have to pull myself up by my own bootstraps, I hope G.M. faces that same reality of pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps.”
Jeffrey Kerr, a real estate developer who lives in the Lake Michigan town of Saugatuck, objects to the personal costs that he says come with bailouts. “When the government starts bailing out private companies,” Mr. Kerr said, “what they’re basically saying is, ‘We’re going to tax you more for a very long time.’ ”
Pat Weber, a construction manager who was laid off last year in Fennville, near Saugatuck, largely agreed. “A bailout will cause a snowballing effect,” Ms. Weber said, “and it’s way too scary how it will come back on all of us.”
At the shop where Mr. Raterink makes tools and machinery, there used to be 15 men. Now there are five.
“They weren’t offered any bailout,” he said of those who lost their jobs. Then, of the Big Three and the mismanagement he perceives, he added, “The wolf you let loose is at your door.”

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