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Michigan leaders give Obama deputy an earful over GM plans

Cabinet members are touring auto country to offer the administration's support. Michigan stands to be hit hardest by GM's bankruptcy plans.

By Correspondent / June 2, 2009

US Labor Secretary Hilda Solis announces an additional $49 million in federal aid to help Michigan workers who lose their jobs because of foreign trade. She was visiting a General Motors plant in Romulus, Mich., Tuesday. Secretary Solis and other cabinet officials are touring Michigan, Ohio, and Indiana.

Carlos Osorio/AP

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Ypsilanti, Mich.

Many of Michigan’s most influential state- and local-level leaders gathered in a college boardroom Tuesday to welcome their guest of honor: US Labor Secretary Hilda Solis.

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Then the interrogation began:

Why did General Motors choose to close the plants it did?

When will more federal help arrive for a state that leads the nation in unemployment with a 12.9 percent jobless rate in April?

What can President Obama do to stop so many manufacturing jobs from flowing to Mexico?

Of the nine states affected by GM’s bankruptcy plan, announced Monday, Michigan will be hit the hardest. Total job losses in Michigan are 8,900, or 42 percent of all GM’s bankruptcy-related job cuts in North America. Secretary Solis’s presence at Eastern Michigan University Tuesday was the Obama administration’s acknowledgment that Michigan faces unique challenges in the current recession.

State and local officials wanted Solis to turn that condolence into concrete action Tuesday. To some degree, she did, announcing the release of $49 million for the training and support of Michigan workers. But Michigan leaders will press for that spigot to open wider in the coming months.

“All I can tell you is you are very much on our radar screen. Our president gets it,” said Solis.

The choice of venue for Tuesday’s meeting was appropriate. Worker retraining programs are a central element of Michigan’s attempts to recast its economy, and Eastern Michigan University is leading that effort. One of its programs is aimed at displaced, middle-aged auto workers who have spent a career working the factory floor. The goal is to help them transition into management roles or technology-industry jobs.

Don Riviera graduated from the program in December, earning a bachelor's of science degree after working in the tool-and-die industry his entire career. He had decided to enroll after the fourth company he worked for went out of business. He considered opening his own company, but he knew he lacked business skills. He now operates a seven-person toolmaking and machining company in Gibraltar, Mich.

“We can’t stand still,” says Mr. Riviera.

Andy Levin, deputy director for the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Growth, made this point in the meetings with Solis. The state is seeking a further $58 million from the federal Labor Department to help fund programs like the one at Eastern Michigan, he announced.