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GM's uncertain future leaves Ohio town on edge
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DEFIANCE, Ohio — Bernie Shively steered his pickup truck around the union hall parking lot two times this week, passing all the empty spaces before finally shutting off the engine.

He sat behind the wheel of his GMC Sierra at the back of the lot, facing two choices, with just a few hours to decide.

Go inside to turn in his retirement papers from General Motors Corp. and hope his health benefits and pension aren't eliminated in a few months. Or turn back and return to a job that might not be around in another year.

Either way, Shively faces an uncertain future as GM, which churns out engine blocks in this northern Ohio city of 17,000, rushes to rework a reorganization plan ordered by the federal government. Pay cuts and more job losses, which most here expect, would create a ripple effect that touches almost everyone.

Shively wants to make the right decision for himself and his family.

"It's just unreal how much pressure there is," said Shively, 54, still sitting in his truck on Tuesday while dozens of co-workers were inside the hall accepting the company's buyout and making their retirements official. "Do I give up my job now? Do I take a pay cut? I just wish somebody could tell us what's going to happen."

There are no guarantees for anyone. Not for GM workers, not for the few other businesses in the area, not for the town.

"The next 60 days will have a big impact on us," said Bob Armstrong, a GM retiree who is now the mayor. That's how long the automaker has to make more cuts and transform itself so it can receive additional federal aid.

The possibility of bankruptcy protection is growing, and that could bring the loss of benefits for retired employees.

About 60 workers at GM's foundry here accepted buyout and early retirement incentives this week without knowing whether their benefits would be safe, said Dwight Chatham, president of the United Auto Workers union Local 211.

Most folks know how important the factory is to the area, Chatham said. It's the city's biggest water customer and accounts for about a quarter of its income tax revenue, bringing in several million dollars each year. It supports charities and youth sports.

"This affects not just us, but the schools, the churches, the city," he said. "We're all on the ship together."

Losing GM would put many of the town's clothing stores and restaurants out of business, said Larry Joost, a used car salesman. "We depend on these plants," he said.

John Lawson, a laid-off GM worker, owns a pizza place a few blocks from the factory. He and his wife bought it two years ago because they weren't sure they could count on his factory job.

"We thought this might be the best time to do it because who knows what's going to happen out there," he said, calling the GM plant the town's identity.

"It's more than just a factory that pays good money," he said. "It's an American icon here in Defiance."

The town has bounced back from cuts at GM in recent years as small businesses have sprouted up, adding more jobs. A new highway connecting Toledo and Fort Wayne, Ind., promises to bring more development and jobs.

Still, the county's jobless rate was at 13.3 percent in February.

The city decided two weeks ago not to buy any new vehicles this year and won't open one of two swimming pools this summer.

Employment at the GM plant is now at 1,500 — down from 5,500 in the 1970s, when it made engine blocks but also contracted with other companies to build everything from manhole covers to tank treads.

Workers hope they have an edge, since there's just one other U.S. plant — in Saginaw, Mich. — that makes GM engine blocks. They can't imagine the company could get by without both.

It's a tough job.

"We pour molten iron in there," said Keith Nally, who has put in 33 years. "You can't imagine how hot it gets."

He decided against taking early retirement because he figured the offer of $20,000 cash and a $25,000 voucher to buy a car wouldn't go too far once he paid his taxes on the buyout.

Those who did accept it gathered at the UAW hall Tuesday to finalize their paperwork and swap stories, masking the worry they felt inside.

"Hardest decision of my life," said Beau Hahn, 59, of Oakwood. "I didn't want to go yet."

The Obama administration's decision to oust GM CEO Rick Wagoner during the weekend persuaded him to get out before it got worse.

In the union hall's lobby, Shively peered through an open door. He had decided to get out of his truck but wasn't ready to step all the way inside.

He listened as a union official called out the names of the new retirees and their years of service.

"I know just about everybody up there," he said while watching them gather for a group photo on their final day.

Shively, of Leipsic, had until the end of the day to make a decision. Most of the others had made up their minds days ago. He knew that turning down the company's latest buyout was risky, since there are no more certainties in the auto industry.

He had spent the past 32 years at the plant. He still took pride in his job making cores that create the openings inside engine blocks. The work would leave him coated in oil and sand after every shift.

But his wife wants him to retire. He'd like to spend more time with their grandchildren and make good on those hunting and fishing trips with his son that he passed up because he was always working.

It would be easy to walk away if he knew he could count on his benefits and pension.

"The outlook isn't good, but it's scary to leave, too," he said. "There's never going to be another job like General Motors. I know that."

Shively lingered outside the hall while the retirees ate cake. He couldn't resist saying hello. So he walked inside and joined the others who were recalling old times and talking about their plans.

They urged him to get out, too. He nodded but said he was still on the fence.

He saw how satisfied everyone looked.

So after a few minutes passed with more encouragement from his friends, he decided to turn in his retirement papers, still wondering what the future holds.

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