Popular Mechanics, November 15, 2010

GM Makes Money, Closes Factories

All over the Midwest, the contents of closed auto factories are being sold to the highest bidders. Here's a look inside one auction.

General Motors, the "new" General Motors, is out and about these days trying to convince institutional investors that the post-bankruptcy carmaker is worth buying into when it issues stock later this month. The road show for GM involves private jet rides, five-star hotels and a return to fattened expense accounts at top-rated restaurants. Meantime, a much less sexy selling process is going on at "Old GM," the skeletal remains of the company that went through bankruptcy last year. Assembly and stamping plants GM jettisoned are being auctioned off piece by piece around the Midwest in the biggest industrial garage sale ever. The auctions, whose lunch menu consists of hotdogs and coffee in foam cups, are attracting big business, as well as old GM veterans visiting their past.

On Nov. 5, the auctioneer's hammer was dropping hundreds of times at Pontiac East Assembly in the city of Pontiac, Mich. The massive 3.4 million square foot plant constructed in 1972 was turning out Chevy and GMC pickup trucks until the summer of 2009. Over 1000 workers were furloughed in July of last year, and during their hiatus it was determined the plant would close for good with pickup assembly consolidated at GM's Fort Wayne, Ind., plant.

Auctioning Off an Era

As GM closes a string of fifteen facilities, it is hard not to see the passing of an era. It's not that auto assembly is vanishing from the U.S.: There are still plants in Michigan, Ohio and Indiana getting new investment from GM, Ford and Chrysler. And Asian and European carmakers have opened, and continue to open, plants in the South. But the Midwest has clearly lost the scale of auto manufacturing that built up Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana before and after World War II. And lost with that scale are the jobs and the vibrancy of local culture in Michigan towns like Pontiac and Flint and Janesville, Wis.

Walk into Pontiac East's assembly area, and the feeling is almost cinematic--ironically, since a quarter-mile away, Motown Motion Pictures continues construction on a sound stage. Michigan is attracting moviemakers with huge tax breaks to film in the state, and many see the movie business as the state's best hope for economic growth after the loss of so many factories.

Walking around the vast plant is like scuba diving on a shipwreck. Curiosity keeps drawing a visitor deeper into the bowels of the plant, but you start to worry about finding your way out. Pontiac East feels further like a sunken ship because it will never again do the work for which it was designed. And one even wonders how many workers were taken down physically and emotionally, like sailors caught below decks, when this plant closed.

The cacophony of welding, hammering and riveting is replaced with just the loud buzz of hundreds of fluorescent light fixtures. Cobwebs have had the chance to take hold around conveyor hooks that once held stamped truck-body panels and seats. Workbenches and lockers still hold the names of laborers who were forced to retire, relocate or are just plain out of work. Robotic spot welders, which spun and flailed like dancers, and created a daily light show of sparks when they worked full-tilt, are still, but appear to be standing at attention, hopeful for new work.

Some will get it. At this auction, dozens of bidders were there in person, but most were online, looking at equipment via webcast and e-mailing or phoning in their bids for the robots, as well as for thousands more items--cabinets, workbenches, storage shelves, tools, furniture, neon signs, even exercise equipment that was once brought in for workers to get in a different kind of workout than the ones they were getting on the line 8 hours a shift.

An auction is tedious. It can take an hour to get through 20 lots, though the auctioneer does all he can to speed it up, forcing bidders to take more than one lot of the same stuff, or making it worth the bidder's while by heavy discounting.

Many of the bidders were resellers, individuals or small firms that buy up the equipment and store it, listing it online for buyers. But a few were individuals from Southeast Michigan just looking for some tools, a workbench, and even a piece of history.

Workbenches and Workers

Chester Wisniewsky was looking for more than a bargain. He was looking for a piece of his past. Wisniewsky worked at Pontiac East from 1993 to 2003, always second shift because of his lack of seniority at the plant. On auction day, he came looking for the workbench that was the center of his workday for a decade, hoping to pick it up at a bargain price and install it in his garage. He found it, on the second floor of the sprawling plant, still with his name on the backsplash. Even six years after he retired, his work mates left their predecessors' names up before they walked out for the last time. Personal touches remain in the plant. At the hundreds of workbenches scattered throughout the plant, there are names written or tagged with labels: "Skip," "Larry," and even "Old Guy."

The 70-year-old metalworker found his large workbench a little worse for wear, and it went for a surprising $2500 as part of a bigger lot of cabinets. But Wisniewsky bid for a smaller bench with attached cabinets that was in a bit better shape and landed it for $500. As the retired lathe operator perused the workshop in which his new purchase stood, filled with cabinets and boxes of bolts, well-worn vises and hand tools, a lot of conflicting thoughts were flooding back into his head. "This plant was only set up to turn out 125,000 trucks a year, but we were doing 250,000 for a while," he said with the pride of an overachiever.

But not all the memories are golden. Working second shift, he says, meant he had no social life as his nights were spoken for. And unlike the experience he had working at Stroh's Brewery before signing on to GM, the plant was full of harsh politics. Work life and job performance at the plant, he says, were heavily affected by intramural union squabbles, like one worker from one trade trying to make another worker from another trade look bad or even compromising another worker's job performance. "You had to spend a lot of time and energy covering your ass," he recalls.

Looking younger than his years in jeans and a leather jacket, Wisniewsky represents a bittersweet legacy of American manufacturing. He had, and still has in his hands, plenty of talent and work ethic. He took robotic spot welders apart and overhauled them for a good chunk of his time at the plant. He tried to stay focused on the work, and was glad to have it and the benefits after the brewery closed. But as he recounted his last days at Pontiac East, and the conversation he had with his wife about retiring a little short of getting his maximum benefits so they could spend some quality years together, one also gets a picture of a man wearied not just by a decade of second shifts, but by twisted sets of work rules and a politically charged atmosphere designed by a union and management deeply distrustful of one another. "That part of it could really wear you down," he says.

An auto plant, of course, is a study in automation. And everywhere there are overhead hooks that held all manner of parts and stamped body panels; the hooks on a conveyor that brought them to work stations on the line to be pushed and wrestled into place on a passing truck chassis by human hands. The hooks now hang motionless and probably won't be part of the auctioned material. They will likely go to scrap when the building is torn down or repurposed.

For all the automation that takes place in an auto assembly plant, there is also a lot of handwork. The hundreds of heavy, well-worn vises attached to benches attest to the amount of handwork done. A metal mallet cast aside on the shop floor looks as if it has banged a million pieces of metal together; an artifact so beaten and gnarled one might expect to find it in a Civil War battlefield dig rather than an auto plant closed for a mere 18 months. There are dozens of vise grips that have been modified in these shops to perform specific functions known only to the men and women who welded the modifications. In some cases, too, assembly-line machines would be modified to better handle the job, or make the workflow easier and less body--straining for the workers. Purpose-built tools and gadgets are a way of life at a factory this big.

Equipment resellers represent the biggest contingent of bidders at these auctions. These are people who have standing orders from some of their steady customers for specific machines and equipment and commodity items like storage cabinets. That market, says reseller Steve Rusinowski, was dead last year, but is picking up again. He was looking to bid on industrial material racks for companies across the Midwest. What's for sale exactly and what does it go for? An eight-drawer tooling cabinet with the contents still in it went for $800. One just like it went later for $300. That is how an auction works. A Lista brand tooling cabinet with a layout table and attached cabinets went for $1300. A used robot spot-welder goes for between $5000 and $10,000. In all, 1880 separate items and lots were for sale.

Some people come from specific companies. Craig Sytsma of Electro Services in nearby Oxford, Mich., was scouting the plant for cleaning and inspection equipment for the company that supplies machinery for other companies.

Others like White Lake, Mich., John Turner hadn't worked at the factory but was looking for tools at a bargain for his small business: an arbor press, a cherry picker and jackstands. Talking to some of the denizens of these auctions, it is clear that agents from companies in China and India have been attending the auctions, picking up equipment by the cargo-container load.

As bidders walked around the sprawling plant to examine the treasures, one thing that catches the eye are the numerous signs throughout the alleyways. A neon Chevy sign was eyeballed by many would-be bidders, no doubt to decorate a basement family room, private office, workshop or pool room. But then there are the purely functional signs that governed a worker's day or satisfied Human Resources department edicts, and some that were put up by the workers themselves. They are all reminders of how big and complex an enterprise is that turns out 250,000 pickup trucks a day and manages two shifts of workers: "Quickie Repairs," "God Bless America," "Tornado Shelter Area," "Quality Creates Customer Enthusiasm," Protect The Environment," "We are a Team."

There is one sign still hanging on what appears to be a perfectly operating calibration machine, however, that sadly tells the story of Pontiac East Assembly and so many other plants that once thrived in Michigan and throughout the Midwest: "Out of Service."

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