Optimism Revs Up At GM, Chrysler Plants

U.S. President Barack Obama delivers a speech at the Chrysler Jefferson North Assembly Plant July 30, 2010 in Detroit, Michigan.
U.S. President Barack Obama delivers a speech at the Chrysler Jefferson North Assembly Plant July 30, 2010 in Detroit, Michigan. Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

President Obama visits GM and Chrysler auto plants in Detroit on Friday to call attention to the successes -- so far -- of the bailed-out companies. A White House report says the industry has added 55,000 jobs, GM will stay open during its usual two-week summer shutdown and Chrysler added another production shift.

President Obama visits GM and Chrysler auto plants in Detroit on Friday to call attention to the successes -- so far -- of the bailed-out companies.

And while he's likely to acknowledge that the decision to bail out the companies was widely unpopular outside the industrial Midwest, he's expected to make the case that government investment led to a stronger national economy overall.

Chrysler's Jefferson North Assembly plant on Detroit's east side is adding 1,100 jobs and a second shift to produce the new Jeep Grand Cherokee.

Bernie Kitter says that in the 15 years he's worked at the massive facility, the shifts have dwindled from three to just one. He hopes the president's visit means the plant is on the upswing.

"The mood's very upbeat. We're looking forward to him visiting," Kitter says. "We've worked very hard to come out of this post-bankruptcy."

One of the provisions of Chrysler's government-sponsored bankruptcy was a shotgun wedding with Italian automaker Fiat. Kitter says the transition to Fiat management has been smooth.

"Fiat's brought some new technology to Chrysler as a whole. And then we've implemented a new manufacturing process … world-class manufacturing. And it has made a big difference at the plant," he says. "It's made a tremendous difference at the plant."

Bad Could Have Been Worse

En route to his second stop -- at GM's Hamtramck Assembly plant -- Obama will pass abandoned warehouses and decayed factories that now make up much of Detroit's industrial landscape. It's a reminder that even as GM and Chrysler make tentative comebacks, there is still a lot of room for a full recovery.

Hamtramck is a small working-class enclave within the city of Detroit. Nearly everyone here still calls Hamtramck Assembly the "Poletown" plant, after the neighborhood that was bulldozed to make way for it in the early 1980s.

Poletown will stay open during the usual two-week summer shutdown to meet growing demand for some GM models. The company is also investing $100 million in the plant, which is getting ready to produce the much-anticipated Chevy Volt, GM's new electric car.

About a mile north of the plant at Cafe 1923, barista Jennifer Pearson says customers offer up a lot of opinions about the state of the auto industry.

"It's a big issue around here. I mean the reason Hamtramck existed is because of the auto industry," she says. "And so with the ups and downs, we feel it maybe more than most places."

Despite the good news at Poletown, Pearson says the industry's recent crisis has left Hamtramck with a visible sense of loss. While a White House report touts the 55,000 jobs the industry has added in the past year, that's a small dent in the 334,000 jobs the auto sector shed in 2008 alone.

Mail carrier Tony Wagner says while Michigan is still reeling from the auto crisis, government intervention prevented something far worse.

"If you had said, 'You know GM and Chrysler are going to go bankrupt.' I would have thought this whole state would have completely collapsed into a sinkhole," he says. "And it's been bad, but not as bad as I would have expected. So I've got to give a little grudging credit to the way they've pulled it off." Copyright 2010 Michigan Radio. To see more, visit http://michiganradio.org/.

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