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Can an American Auto Industry Town Regain Past Prosperity?


These are hard times for parts of the American Midwest where the American auto industry is centered. Competition from Asian automakers, outsourcing, and automation have, over the years, forced American companies to shut down factories and cut jobs by the thousands. While labor leaders there continue to fight for auto industry jobs, most people in the affected communities realize many of these jobs are not coming back. To survive, experts say the region must lower expectations and diversity its economy. VOA's Brian Padden recently visited Flint, Michigan, a city that has lost approximately 70,000 auto jobs in the last 30 years.

At one time Flint, Michigan embodied the American dream. Until the 1970s, good paying jobs here were plentiful at the General Motors Corporation auto assembly plants. At the height of Flint's prosperity, 82,000 people worked for General Motors, and downtown was a bustling, crowded city.

Today, Flint, Michigan is a shadow of its former self. Empty buildings dot Main Street. General Motors continues to manufacture trucks in Flint, but it employs only 12,000 people. And General Motor's major supplier, Delphi Corporation, has filed for bankruptcy.

Michael King works for Delphi. He fears the company may be planning to eliminate more jobs or cut wages in the near future. "There are questions as to where we are going with that company and where we are going to end up." King is already selling his home because of financial difficulties. Without this job, he says he does not know what he would do.

At the regional United Auto Workers office in Flint, director Duane Zuckschwerdt continues to fight to save American autoworker jobs. But he realizes that unions today have limited bargaining power when companies can relocate to China and other low wage countries. In addition to negotiating labor contracts, he says the union must get more involved in advocating trade policy.

"We know we have to take a much stronger approach as far as political activism, as far as getting our message out to middle class America,” says Zuckschwerdt. “It isn't just about labor. It's about Middle America."

But former American Motors Corporation Chairman Gerald Meyers says nothing can be done to bring those auto jobs back to Flint. Meyers is now a professor of management at the University of Michigan. "For the younger people, they have to face up to the fact that this area, this Michigan area, is not what it was and they should go elsewhere -- and they will go elsewhere."

Flint Mayor Don Williamson says the future of Flint depends on its ability to attract businesses beyond the manufacturing sector. To do that, he says the city has spent millions of dollars in the last four years to tear down rundown buildings, repave roads and increase the number of police on the streets.

"First of all we have to clean this town up before people are going to come here. We need to get the city in perfect condition and people will come back," says the mayor.

Renovating a historic bank building into apartments for students at the local University of Michigan campus is the beginning of an urban renewal effort. The city is also planning to make the entire downtown area a free wireless Internet zone to attract high-tech businesses. While these efforts will not bring back the prosperity of the past, city leaders hope they will make the city of Flint more competitive in a global economy.

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