March 31, 2009 at 1:00 am

GM workers upset that Wagoner became sacrificial lamb

Some say auto industry plight should be blamed on unfair trade practices.

President Barack Obama's "last chance" mandate to American car companies was hard to swallow for some in the state that the automakers call home.

"Washington just denied that government trade and energy policy had anything to do with the mess we are in, and replaced it with the head of Rick Wagoner," said Chris Vitale, a 15-year Chrysler LLC employee and editor of the Web site fairimage.org, which defends the Detroit's Big Three and attacks federal trade policy.

"It re-enforces this public image that it's all the companies' and workers' fault. But the (federal government) just washed their hands of any responsibility for its unfair trade policies that created this environment."

At UAW Local 599 in Flint, which represents GM workers who will someday be building the engines for the future Chevrolet Cruze and electric Volt, union chairman Terry Everman said the "timing is bad" for Wagoner's ouster.

"Here we got past all the bad media, all that fury during congressional hearings, and now they want him to resign," Everman said.

"It's really a setback, because you don't know what new direction GM will take."

At GM's Renaissance Center headquarters in Detroit, engineer Jeff Lines called the leadership change "more symbolic than anything else. ... It is unfortunate that he has to lose his job, but the American people want to feel like there's serious change."

Bryan Bateman, a manager for information systems and services at OnStar, a GM subsidiary that makes vehicle safety and security systems, was shocked by Wagoner's dismissal.

"It just didn't seem appropriate for the administration, rather than the board, to dictate," Bateman said. "Changing leadership in the middle of a crisis isn't always the best avenue.

"I think Rick was a sacrificial lamb in all this. I think he took one for the company."

Lines and Bateman both think Obama's 60-day deadline is nonetheless realistic.

"It motivates both sides to come to the table and make some concessions to get what they need to get done" such as reconciling labor costs and retirement funds, Lines said.

The timeframe shows that "the government recognizes that GM has done a lot, but hasn't gone fast enough," he said.

But a bankruptcy filing would be a short-term fix for the auto industry because it wouldn't address suppliers or other businesses affected by the downturn, Bateman said.

"It just forces the problem down another level."

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