How One Michigan Family Has Recovered 10 Years After Auto Plant Closure
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
The national unemployment rate is lower than it's been in half a century - 3.7 percent. That's a huge turnaround. Here in Michigan, the rate was close to 15 percent during the crash a decade ago. The auto industry imploded. Companies declared bankruptcy. We wanted to talk with some of the people who were squeezed out of the auto industry about their paths through this recovery, so we found one family that all worked at the same GM plant just outside Detroit, Willow Run.
DON SKIDMORE: The plant was the world's largest plant under one roof. It was a mile and a quarter that way.
SHAPIRO: I met Don Skidmore in a big, empty parking lot at the place where he went to work every day for more than 30 years until GM shut it down in 2010.
SKIDMORE: It's odd standing here. It's emotional.
SHAPIRO: Yeah, I'm sure.
SKIDMORE: It is. It's crazy.
SHAPIRO: What does the phrase Willow Run mean to you at this point when you hear it today?
SKIDMORE: Sick - I get sick, sickening - just the word or to see it on the freeway on the way here. Yeah, it was a lot. It was everything.
SHAPIRO: When he started work here in the 1970s, he says the plant employed 15,000 people. By the time Willow Run closed, Don Skidmore was president of the local union chapter, and that made him one of the last people to leave.
SKIDMORE: It was December 23. It was Christmas. But yeah, it was dark and scary and, you know, crying all the way to the car like losing somebody, like losing your life, you know?
SHAPIRO: At the time, Skidmore lived with his wife and stepson. The paths that each of them have taken since then reflect larger patterns in the U.S. workforce. Don Skidmore wasn't quite ready to retire. He went to a different GM plant in Toledo for a few years, commuting an hour each way. Finally he saw the writing on the wall and took a buyout.
(SOUNDBITE OF ENGINE REVVING)
SHAPIRO: Now at age 60, he helps maintain a private golf course at a fancy club in the suburbs.
SKIDMORE: This is a beautiful hall here, too...
SKIDMORE: ...Very elevated.
SHAPIRO: He rides a lawnmower for hours around the 18 holes, and that gives him time to think, often about the auto industry.
SKIDMORE: The days are over. Them good ole days are over.
SHAPIRO: Between the golf course and his GM pension, he makes less money than he did at the auto plant. But he says it's enough.
SKIDMORE: I'm not happy, still not happy, still miss the people, still miss my job representing people. You know, it was great. And then General Motors just - bam, you know? They shut the door, and then we all go our separate ways.
SHAPIRO: Back then, Don Skidmore was married to Dawn Green. They both worked at the plant. And I went to meet her next...
(SOUNDBITE OF VELCRO RIPPING)
SHAPIRO: ...At her current workplace.
DAWN GREEN: Oh, well, your pulse is at 80, so you're good.
SHAPIRO: Today Dawn Green is a nurse at an urgent care clinic. She's wearing Halloween-themed scrubs.
GREEN: Little bit of everything, little bit of everything from stitches, X-rays. Strep is a big thing this time of year, the...
SHAPIRO: After she left Willow Run, she learned that GM would cover most of her tuition to go back to school, so she spent more than four years training to be a nurse. And that reflects a bigger shift in this economy. As auto industry jobs went away, the health care field grew.
And was there any part of you that thought, I can't believe I'm starting over at 36 and going back to school for a completely different field I know nothing about?
GREEN: Yes, yes, very much so. I noticed once I was in the actual classes how different it was actually really going be 'cause there were people who just graduated high school that were there with me.
SHAPIRO: I know you were married to Don when the plant closed. Did the ending of that marriage have anything to do with all the upheaval that was going on in your professional life?
GREEN: Yeah, I would say because I at that point was used to being independent, used to being able to depend on myself and pay my own bills and take care of my own self. And once that wasn't there anymore, I felt like I had to depend on him. I think I was searching for that independence again and just couldn't handle it, so...
SHAPIRO: So when you think about the work family that you had at Willow Run, how many of them would you say are in the kind of position you're in today where 10 years later, they have a job they love; they're happy with their pay; they feel fulfilled and on their feet?
GREEN: I'm not going to say a big percentage of them. And it gets me kind of emotional, to be honest. I guess I always assumed that when you retired, you retired, and you enjoyed your life after that. But I do see around town people that I worked with that retired working, like, in small shops and stuff like that. So I don't know if that's exactly what they pictured life being like after retirement.
SHAPIRO: And some people who worked at Willow Run weren't old enough to retire 10 years ago, like Dawn Green's son Nick Patton. He's part of a generation that entered the workforce just as the recession was hitting. And many of them have never found their footing. Patton started working as a cleaner on the midnight shift at Willow Run when he was 18. He had that job for about three years.
NICK PATTON: It was like a tease really. You know, like, I felt like it kind of, like, teased me. It's like, oh, hey, you know, here's a good job. You know, you're going to be set. You don't have to worry about getting thousands of dollars in debt for student loans and doing all this. You can just work hard here and, you know, 25, 30 years retire and just live a normal life. But that was not the case. It just - it went down the drain a little bit.
SHAPIRO: Patton has struggled since he left Willow Run. He's been in and out of school and service industry jobs. He moved to Florida and came back. He just got offered a job with a rental car company at the airport. Until he starts there, he's doing seasonal Halloween work.
The barn door is opening, and monsters are running out (laughter). That's Nick, the river monster.
(SOUNDBITE OF FIREWORKS EXPLODING)
SHAPIRO: Oh, my God.
Those are fireworks going off overhead at Wiard's Night Terrors, a haunted thrill park. Patton runs around in a full-body costume all night with seaweed dripping off a snaggletooth face.
(SOUNDBITE OF FIREWORKS EXPLODING)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Screaming).
SHAPIRO: So a decade after the economic crash, each of these three family members has a job. They're all making less money than they did at Willow Run. And what about the plant itself?
SKIDMORE: It seems like a fantasy world or something in here, you know?
SHAPIRO: The current owners invited us in to take a tour along with Don Skidmore, who was one of the last people to leave when it closed down. This is his first time inside the gate since that day.
JEFF RUPP: Control, it's ACM six departing the freeway loop, entering...
SHAPIRO: Our tour guide is Jeff Rupp. He's chief technical officer at the American Center for Mobility. The site formerly known as Willow Run is now a place where people test autonomous vehicles - driverless cars. Don Skidmore seems shaken revisiting his past.
RUPP: I don't know if you remember this, this little circle drive, yeah.
SKIDMORE: Office building's right there.
RUPP: Yeah. So we left it. We like the trees. We like the leaves on the street.
SKIDMORE: It's kind of cool. It's kind of eerie in a way (laughter), you know? I remember when it was real.
SHAPIRO: It's like two worlds overlapping, past and present. We pull up to what used to be the front entrance to the plant. It's now cut off from the public. Skidmore gets out of the car. He stands on the ground where he used to lead union members picketing.
SKIDMORE: Traffic jams, honking horns - now what? (Laughter) Now cars are driving by themselves.
SKIDMORE: What a crazy world.
SHAPIRO: A big sign like a billboard looms over his head. The GM logo is long gone, but on the crossbar underneath in faded black paint, you can barely make out the ghost of another logo, United Auto Workers, and the name of the union chapter that Skidmore represented, Local 735. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.