Auto Industry Woes Drive Michigan Primary

With joblessness on the rise, voters want relief and recovery.

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Republican Mike Huckabee (C) gets a tour from Ed Peper (R), general manager of Chevrolet, at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Michigan.

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YPSILANTI, Mich.— The GM-owned Willow Run transmission plant here is roughly 100 times the size of a football field. More than 2,500 people—mostly shift-working union members, trained as linesmen or production hands or trade employees—worked here in 2007.

Approached from the west, the plant appears as a mass of ports and roofing and dull gray sheet metal, with a single row of smokestacks rising up and shooting trails of exhaust into the sky. It is a retrofit from World War II, built in the years of booming American production, when the plant churned out more than 8,000 B-24 Liberator Bombers and at one point employed roughly 20,000 men and 20,000 women.

Yesterday, GM officials cut 200 employees from the payroll here, citing a "fluctuation in customer demand."

Forty miles east of the plant, the leading GOP presidential candidates were shaking hands and taking photos inside the showroom of the North American International Auto Show at the COBO Center in Detroit. The annual event is a flashy affair and a bonanza for media. Last night, a model in a short black dress stood on a white platform next to a topaz coupe and smiled at the foreign journalists walking past. A Maserati here, a Chrysler there.

Were it not for today's GOP primaries in Michigan, the Detroit auto show would no doubt be the most important story in the state, hands down. It may arguably still be the most important story in the state.

But the political calendar and the presence of the likes of Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee have given the event not just a competitor but also a dose of intense political scrutiny. The timing, observers say, has put a public face on a serious problem to which the federal government has often turned a blind eye.

The layoffs at the Willow Run plant underscore a slow decline that has gutted the state's automobile industry and in turn its economy. From 2000 to 2006, Michigan lost more than 330,000 jobs, most of them in manufacturing. The Big Three automakers—GM, Ford, and Chrysler—saw their share of the domestic market share drop by nearly 10 percentage points from 2000 to 2005. Last year alone, Ford's sales decreased by 12 percent. Meanwhile, imports increased and foreign automakers have continued to open plants in the United States.

The unskilled blue-collar worker has taken the hardest punches. Forty percent of auto assembly jobs in Michigan were lost during the first half of this decade. Other states in the Midwest have suffered — Ohio lost 25 percent of its assembly jobs—but Michigan, as the industry's traditional home, has been the biggest loser. The leaching of jobs has led to an exodus of people from the state, too. In 2007 Michigan was one of just two states in the country to decline in total population. (Rhode Island was the other.)

The cars on display at the COBO Center hint at how industry execs are hoping to solve their woes. They have placed their bets on smaller cars with better fuel efficiency and on making them more competitive with foreign stalwarts. The redesigned Chevrolet Malibu, which won Car of the Year on Sunday, represents a nearly $100 million investment by the company and is supposed to rival the Honda Accord and the Toyota Camry. Ford likewise unveiled (through a cloud of smoke) a sporty, subcompact model called Verve.

Even if the new slim designs lure buyers back to American cars, the turnaround will very likely take years, and Michigan residents are impatient. It is no wonder that much of the debate surrounding today's primary has concerned the economy and the automotive industry specifically.

Romney on Monday pledged to "rebuild America's automotive industry" and gave a speech at the Detroit Economic Club, driving home his message of decreased regulation of the auto industry. He told his audience that he would force industry executives, union members, and members of Congress to convene during his first months in office and to make them reach an agreement about how to reverse the decline. He also pledged $20 billion in federal money for research on new technology.