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GENERAL MOTORS' GYPSIES
GM'S WORKERS
STAY MOBILE
TO KEEP JOBS

IT WASN'T JUST the money, said Margaret Partee, although a $60,000 bonus is hard to ignore.

Partly, she moved because she's single and likes to travel. And since she's not from Michigan originally, she didn't have deep roots there.

In April 1996, Ms. Partee transferred to Delphi Harrison Thermal Systems in Lockport, leaving behind a brother, two sisters, and a shrinking General Motors assembly plant in Lake Orion, Mich.

"I felt, 'This is a way for me to see a new place,' " she said. Besides, "we had a lot of people laid off -- somebody had to go."

Ms. Partee is among hundreds of blue-collar GM workers who have come to the region's auto plants in the past several years, drawn by jobs at Delphi Harrison and at GM's engine plant in the Town of Tonawanda. Since 1990, the busy factories have pulled about 400 new residents to the Niagara Frontier, union officials estimate. Tonawanda alone has received 240 out-of-area transfers since 1993, the company said.

"There's always more transferring in, because of the attrition rate," said Jerry McCormick, president of United Auto Workers Local 774 at Tonawanda. "It's an older work force -- every month, people want to retire."

The influx barely makes a demographic dent in the region's population loss. The urban area that covers Erie and Niagara counties is losing more than 7,000 residents a year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

But the migration demonstrates the lengths people will go to keep their job with the nation's biggest automaker. Lockport and Tonawanda have been magnets for people from Massachusetts, New Jersey and Texas as well as Michigan, all "following their pensions," as one worker put it.

The transfers might foreshadow the kind of exodus that could happen under a spin-off of the Delphi parts division, which GM is contemplating. Workers say they'd consider pulling up stakes again to stay with GM, given the opportunity.

"It gets to the point, you get so many years in, you can't give it up," said David Gemmel, a worker at Delphi Harrison. His own move, from Michigan, looks like a short hop compared to others who have come from Texas, he said.

Under the transfer system, GM's former axle plant in Buffalo has replaced nearly its entire work force since it was sold to American Axle & Manufacturing Inc. in 1994. Three out of four of the plant's workers have taken the option to transfer, UAW officials estimate. Most went to GM's two remaining sites in the region.

Under their union contract, workers who face job loss or a new owner at one plant can apply for openings elsewhere in the company, based on their seniority. In addition, plants that need workers may offer incentives to transfer, helping with relocation costs. The $60,000 bonuses transferees to Delphi received in the spring of 1996 were part of an especially lucrative program.

For many, the move to Western New York wasn't the first time they'd switched plants.

Ms. Partee moved to Michigan from her hometown of Jackson, Miss., in 1968. She started her GM career in 1976, making parts for the Vega at Chevrolet's plant in Warren, Mich. After being laid off in 1984, she was recalled by GM's Lake Orion plant, about 15 miles away. (Residents pronounce it ORE-ee-on).

The opportunity for the transfer to Lockport came as Orion was about to shed 300 workers, she said. Employees with seniority had the highest rights to bid on vacant jobs elsewhere in the company.

The two-year, $60,000 relocation bonus that brought many workers to Lockport last year indicates the depth of GM's aversion to hiring hourly
workers, union officials say. Rather than bring in new employees who will cost the company about $45 an hour at full wages and benefits, Delphi Harrison has attracted transfers to replace retiring workers. Until this year, the site hadn't hired a new, permanent production worker since 1979.

Throughout its operations, GM is trying to do more with less to trim its work force. Its North American operations shed 6,000 workers over the year ended Sept. 30, a 2.4 percent decrease. During the same period, deliveries of vehicles increased by 8.4 percent.

The transfers may have benefits besides keeping GM's payroll lean, said Philip Gott, a principal in DRI/McGraw Hill's global automotive group. Employers in general are having trouble hanging onto experienced workers -- in the Boston area, computer maker DEC is offering employees a bonus of half a year's pay in return for signing a 1 1/2 -year contract.

"I think there's an effort to keep people with know-how," he said. "There's inefficiencies that you don't see when you're recruiting and hiring new people -- they add up."

Not everyone is as mobile as Ms. Partee, however.

Theodore and Linda Trathen are a GM couple. They were hired within a few weeks of each other in 1977 -- he at Detroit Diesel Allison, she at Chevrolet Motors in Flint. They met about halfway between the two cities, at the Lake Orion assembly plant, in 1984.

When the offer came to transfer last year, there was one major consideration: Linda's 14-year-old daughter, Lynea. Rather than uproot her from school, the Trathens let her move in with her father, Linda's mate in a previous marriage.

"It was a big decision -- she (Linda) was kind of torn," Trathen said. "She misses her -- they call each other like every day."

But now the couple is settling in, having found a house in Lockport and a church to replace the one they attended in Michigan.

"The money they paid us smoothed things quite a bit," Trathen said. Since both get the two-year, $60,000 incentive, they were able to pay off their bills, including the broker's fee for selling their house, and pay for a motel stay during their relocation.

Delphi relocations are a big part of the real estate business in the eastern part of Niagara County -- and the western part of Orleans County to boot, said James Watson, broker-manager for Stovroff & Potter Real Estate's Lockport office.

"I don't have statistics, but from my gut, I'd say there's been more (GM) activity in the past 12 to 18 months than before," he said. Watson has headed the Lockport office since 1993.

GM's newcomers are likely to generate sales as well as purchases for the real estate business. Having set themselves in motion, many see Western New York as a stop-over rather than a permanent home.

Lockport is home for the Trathens now, but James Trathen doesn't expect it to stay that way after the couple reaches retirement in about 10 years. Some workers manage to transfer to a southern plant as they near retirement, he said.

Eventually, that's the route Ms. Partee would like to take. The Lockport winter seems colder than Michigan's; certainly it's harsher than what she remembers of the South.

"I want to try Virginia next time -- I have a brother in Norfolk," she said. "Work is work to me -- It's no better or worse here than anywhere else."

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