GM Strike's Impact Ripples Across America

Thousands of workers - and the cities they live in - are beginning to feel the effects of the walkout.

The Chevron gas station on Industrial Loop doesn't have the business it did a month ago. Fewer cars zip by. Fewer stop in to top off the tank or pick up a Snapple.

In fact, since June 15, everything about the nearby industrial park on the western outskirts of Shreveport, La., has been quieter. That's the day the local General Motors plant - the largest manufacturing employer in the city - shut down.

For now, the strike's effects on this muscle-and-smoke community along the Red River are subtle. A healthy economy, fed by rising casino revenues, has acted as a shock absorber against a labor dispute more than 1,000 miles away.

But even in the middle of prosperity, the strike is leaving an imprint in the living rooms of thousands of laborers out work - and the many businesses that depend on them. Moreover, if the walkout persists, its impact will be felt on the daily rhythms of towns from Oklahoma City to Wilmington, Del., where GM plants are located.

"Just as a positive in the economy trickles up, a negative trickles down," says Jim Purgerson, vice president for economic development at the Greater Shreveport Chamber of Commerce. "Workers will start cutting back on groceries, eating out, gambling, making big purchases like boats, everything. Every business in Shreveport will feel it."

So far, the GM strike that began in Flint, Mich., on June 5 has spread out to force the closure of 26 of GM's 29 North American plants. Some 172,000 workers nationwide have been idled by the strikes. And with GM and the United Auto Workers (UAW) still far apart in their negotiations about worker efficiency and equipment investment (which would ensure that more jobs stay in the US), workers are uncertain when they'll pick up a paycheck again.

In Shreveport, 2,900 union employees have been laid off, and as of July 1, production losses were estimated at about 7,700 trucks - or roughly 55 trucks an hour. Lost wages here totaled about $1.8 million a week after unemployment benefits were paid.

Indeed, many GM workers here are watching the events in Flint with mixed feelings. Jerry "Bo" Williams, a burly man who looks as if he would be at home on a football field, wants to back the strikers, but he worries about making ends meet if the work stoppage continues.

He now spends most of his days at Linwood Ceramics in town. He once dropped by the store in his spare time to pour porcelain into molds or glaze a pair of cherub candleholders. He now uses his talents to pull in some extra money.

A member of the plant's chassis department, Mr. Williams has worked for the company 20 years and is a UAW member. He says he was prepared for a two-week break during the annual corporate shutdown for vacation. But he was not prepared for a summer of unemployment in which he receives benefits of $215 a week - a fraction of his normal paycheck. To make matters worse, Williams's wife, Judy, also works at the plant.

Still, he says he stands behind his Flint brethren. "I have to support the strike even though it's hard on us," says Williams, who saves money for this kind of crisis. "It could be our plant next week where they want to cut jobs. We do what we have to do to keep our jobs. We have been through this before."

IN fact, GM has considered cutting 144 jobs from the Shreveport plant, combining two or three jobs into one. In Flint, GM has been pulling up stakes for the past 20 years as it opens new factories abroad. Thousands of jobs have already been lost to those countries, where workers line up for $5 a day in wages.

But not everyone who works at the Shreveport GM plant supports the union as much as Williams does.

Ronnie Hurd knows that the auto industry has its good and bad times. He saves money for these kinds of times but knows several people who live from paycheck to paycheck. Unlike Williams, though, Mr. Hurd is no longer a UAW member. He dropped out a year ago.

"They didn't have to cripple the entire industry to get their point across," says Hurd of the union . "Neither side seemed to think this was going to last as long as it has already."

Even if the strike ends soon, the Shreveport plant may not see its doors opened instantly. Analysts say once the strike is settled, GM is expected to get those plants running that produce its highest-demand vehicles. This could place Shreveport in line for parts, which could take several weeks.

Williams, however, isn't surprised by this. "GM and the UAW have battled each other for years. This is all part of the game," he says. "You just learn to tighten the belt a little."

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