Short GM strike or not, Flint's suffering goes on


By Nick Carey

FLINT, Michigan, Sept 26 (Reuters) - Jeremy Parker was born here and would like to settle down here again to be near his family, but only if could find a permanent job.

"There is a shortage of jobs in this part of Michigan that would enable a man like me to raise a family," said the 30-year-old temporary worker at General Motors Corp . Parker returned to Flint 13 months ago after a decade away. "If I can't get a permanent job then I guess I'll leave again."

The town of Flint, Michigan, has suffered for decades, its decline mirroring that of GM. Businesses here got a small reprieve on Wednesday when the UAW called off a nationwide strike by 73,000 workers against GM which was called on Monday.

But good news is rare for Flint's local economy.

The White Eagle bar is just over the road from a V-6 plant. It is smoke filled, dilapidated and grim. But unlike other bars and restaurants on this road this drinking hole for auto workers has one thing going for it: it's still open.

"There aren't many bars like this left," said Jim Langley, 53, a 31-year GM veteran standing outside the red-painted, two-story brick building. "All the others went under."

John Brooks, 55, who came to Flint 38 years ago from Columbus, Mississippi, for an auto worker's job during GM's golden age -- "I came on Sunday, started work on the Monday" -- points to large fenced concrete lots by a shuttered car plant.

"They used to be parking lots for workers," he said. "But many jobs are gone, so no workers park there anymore."


Less than a mile (1.6 km) from the center of town on the main street is Phil's Pizzeria. Next door is Phil's Party Shop, a sign of a once-growing business empire.

But it's clear that for Phil and much of Flint, the party is over. Both establishments are closed and boarded up, weeds now dominate the parking lot they once shared.

Flint was the ultimate auto boomtown. Between 1900 and 1960 the population rose from 13,000 to a peak of nearly 200,000, reflecting the rise of GM. The auto maker's hourly work force in Flint topped 100,000 -- more than GM's national total today.

Jamelle Abdala, 45, a waiter at Churchill's, a diner and bar on Flint's main street, recalled as a child going to department stores and seeing cars lined up along side streets with neon lights glaring from shops open all hours.

"But that's all gone now," he said, looking out the window. "They demolished the department stores and most of the jobs have gone."

Struggling GM now has shut down many plants here and now has just over 6,200 hourly workers in Flint.

As the work dried up, Flint went into a downward spiral.

"People around the country look at us on strike and they think 'greedy old auto workers,'" said Deborah Taylor, 34, a 25-year veteran at GM who was picketing earlier this week. "But when plants close here, local businesses die."

"The whole local economy was built around GM."

The U.S. Census Bureau said Flint's population fell to an estimated 120,000 by 2003 as people left to find jobs. Boarded up, crumbling homes are a depressingly common sight here.

At 7.2 percent, Michigan has the highest unemployment rate among the U.S. states. Flint is faring worse. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in August 2007 the unemployment rate here was 9.8 percent.

And according to Federal Bureau of Investigation statistics released on Monday this week, in 2006 Flint had the highest crime rate in the country for cities with a population of 100,000 or more. The only thing that may change that statistic is when the population falls below 100,000.

Life in Flint is as hard and cold for many people as the rock with which it shares its name. GM's current struggles still hurt, but much of the damage has already been done.

Robert Kittel, 55, owns The Mad Hatter on main street, which sells everything from hats to Samurai swords.

"When GM was bigger here we were hit much harder whenever there was a strike or they closed a plant," he said. "But what happened to GM has permanently changed this community."

"Flint is hurting real bad."



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