Darlene Morris skipped the recent "Family Day" festival at the Buick City factory, not quite seeing the lure of gleaming white tents with children's games, ice cream and free coffee mugs.
Morris has built Buicks for 23 years, a job that ended when the Flint, Mich., plant closed last Tuesday. To her, the festival was like clapping at a funeral.
"Buick City is a building, but it just contains everything I've known for all these years," she said Wednesday. "The last few days have been -- well, it's too quiet. Everybody is just kind of closed up. It's very sad."
After 95 years of making Buicks in the city where General Motors Corp. was born, the automaker is shutting the sprawling auto plant and ending 1,300 jobs. It's both the end of an era for a place that has defined the city's identity for nearly a century, and the start of more uncertainty for an already wobbly economy.
"There are not a lot of jobs around here that pay $17 an hour, or $20 an hour, like GM does," says Raymond Faris, the owner of Faris Furniture & Jewelry in downtown Flint.
GM's roots in the city 57 miles north of Detroit date to 1903, when a Flint wagon company bought David Dunbar Buick's struggling gasoline engine shop. The first Buick built in Flint came out the next year, little more than a buggy's frame bolted to a 21-horsepower engine and a steering wheel, with a love seat stuck on top.
Buick became the top seller in 1908, even outselling Ford Motor Co. That same year, owner William C. Durant merged Buick and several other automakers to form GM. GM employed more than 75,000 in the Flint area as recently as 1978, and a large sign at the edge of town welcomed motorists to Buick City.
The area was hit hard by thousands of GM layoffs in the 1980s, a period documented by Flint native Michael Moore in his film "Roger & Me." But in the same period, GM spent about $300 million to modernize Buick City.
Since then, sales of the large sedans that make up the heart of Buick's lineup have been falling as many buyers turn to sport utility vehicles instead. In 1997, the company said it would close Buick City's car assembly lines and transfer production to two Michigan plants that can handle more models. GM will keep Buick City's engine and parts factories running, as well as a nearby truck plant.
There still will be just under 30,000 GM employees in Flint after Buick City closes, and the automaker plans to spend $1.5 billion in the next several years to update and build factories in and around Flint.
Buick City plant manager Amy D. Farmer agrees with GM's reasoning in closing the plant, but sees how people can get sentimental about a factory. Farmer herself is a "Flintstone" -- a Flint native -- whose grandfather worked in Buick City.
"It's been here over 90 years," she says. "When you have this giant sitting in the middle of the city, it's understandable how you'd get attached to it."
Over the years, GM has built and torn down dozens of buildings to add new models and take out old equipment. The result is a jumble of towering factories that's hard to see as a single building without driving around the entire two-square-mile site.
The plain buildings, with few windows and dozens of stubby smokestacks, conceal giant conveyor belts that carry car bodies through four stories.
Morris, 42, has built her life around the plant. A Flintstone as well, she's the daughter of a man who spent 44 years building parts for GM. She went to work at the plant when she graduated from high school and wanted money for college. "The next thing I knew, 22 years went by," she said.
Since 1994, Morris has spent much of her free time working on a musical, "Rats!," about working on the assembly line and the history of the union. The play takes its name from "shoprats," a slang term for assembly workers, and had a five-show run at a Flint theater last summer.
She and other workers say GM's reasoning for closing Buick City doesn't make sense, especially after years of promoting the idea that improved quality could save the plant. The plant's Buick LeSabre has done well in customer quality surveys, and Buick City was rated one of GM's most efficient plants by a recent industry report -- beating the two plants that will get its production.
"They've been preaching to us that our job security is to build a good car with high quality, and we're still closing," says Don Wilcox, 41, who worked in the plant's paint shop for 11 years.
About 100 of the 1,400 workers employed at Buick City when it closed will stay on to strip the plant of equipment. Some 200 workers are temporary hires who were let go. Most of the rest are either retiring or going on "protected status," in which they still get a paycheck, but don't have a job right away. They will eventually be offered jobs at other factories.
Morris says that if GM offers her a transfer to Saginaw or Pontiac, she'll take it. But right now the future is unclear.
"That's one of the worst things -- not knowing, not being able to make a plan," she says.
United Auto Workers union leaders say GM's $1.5 billion investment in Flint factories will create several hundred jobs, not nearly enough to make up for the losses of the past few years. They say GM's plans for two new factories near Lansing make them question the company's overcapacity claims.
"That plant should not be closing," says Art McGee, president of UAW Local 599 and a third-generation GM autoworker. "They've got the best team in the company right here…You don't split up the team that wins the championship for you."
GM spokeswoman Carolyn Normandin says the company hopes Buick City workers continue to make high-quality products in their new jobs.
"We would not be ceasing production at this facility if we could sell as many vehicles as we produce in three plants," she said.
While many workers worry about how Buick City's demise will affect both their city and themselves, others say it might not have such a drastic impact. Wilcox, for one, thinks the change could help the city.
"There'll be fewer jobs within GM itself, and a lot of those jobs will take more education than picking someone up off the street and saying, 'Put this part on the car,' " he says. "In Flint, it might help diversify the workforce as a whole."
Ron Ferguson, owner of Ferguson Furniture, says Flint can absorb the cuts better today than 20 years ago. He says the city has almost evolved into a bedroom community for the northern suburbs of Detroit. And he says there are enough GM retirees with good incomes to keep some business humming.
"Maybe we're a one-horse town, but it's like the horse had a few ponies," he says.
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