Obama invites local FCA plant worker to speech

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — President Barack Obama has invited a Chrysler employee to attend his State of the Union Address on Tuesday as he prepares to highlight the $85 billion auto bailout at the annual address.

The White House said Sunday that Tiairris Woodward, 43, of Warren had been invited to sit in first lady Michelle Obama’s box during the event. Woodward works at the Jefferson North Assembly plant in Detroit, where the unit of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV assembles the Jeep Grand Cherokee, a plant Obama visited in 2010. She also worked full time for a local school district.

The invitation comes just two weeks after Obama came to Michigan to tour a Ford Motor Co. assembly plant in Wayne. In December, the Obama administration officially ended its six-year intervention in the U.S. auto industry, when the U.S. Treasury sold its remaining 11.4 percent stake in Ally Financial Inc., the Detroit-based auto lender and bank holding company.

The White House said Sunday that Woodward “wasn’t making enough money to support herself and her three children, the youngest of whom has special needs. She started working for Chrysler in 2010 on the assembly line, and after doing both jobs full time, working 17 hours a day, Tiairris was in a position to move solely to Chrysler, a union job that makes her a member of United Auto Workers Local 7.

“After a year on the job, she saved enough to buy a car and rent an new apartment, and through Chrysler’s Tuition Assistance Program, Tiairris is pursuing her bachelor’s degree in business management.”

Her story “is one of many made possible through the comeback of Detroit and the American auto industry,” the White House said in a statement.

“The president is focused on ensuring more Americans like Tiairris — not just a fortunate few — share in the benefits of our American resurgence.”

The Detroit News was unable to reach Woodward late Sunday.

United Auto Workers President Dennis Williams praised her selection for the speech.

"By honoring one of our hard-working members in the State of the Union speech, the president is recognizing the uniquely American story of how workers, management and the Obama administration joined together to save our manufacturing economy. When workers win, we all win," Williams said Sunday.

Obama is likely to again talk Tuesday about the auto industry, as he has in nearly all of his State of the Union addresses. The auto industry had its best year in 2014 since 2006 as sales hit 16.5 million. Low gas prices are fueling sales of high profit SUVs and trucks and the industry has added back more than 400,000 jobs since mid-2009.

In a Detroit News interview earlier this month, Obama praised the industry’s turnaround. “The auto industry has led a resurgence of manufacturing in America,” he said. “The quality of the cars has gotten so much better that we are competitive, not just in SUVs, but up and down the line. The branding of American cars is back to where it should be.

Obama noted that his advisers were divided on whether to save Chrysler in March 2009 and that he approved funds for Chrysler as part of a tie-up with Fiat SpA.

“The Fiat proposal was plausible enough and the game plan they had for rebuilding Chrysler was sound enough and the workers in those Chrysler plants were hungry enough and dedicated enough that it was worth taking a bet on them, and I'm glad we did,” Obama said.

“The question was not, ‘Do we intervene?’ The question was, ‘Do we intervene in a way that actually spurs the sort of restructuring that gives American automakers the chance to get back in the game,’” Obama said.

White House adviser Dan Pfeiffer said Sunday the theme of Tuesday’s State of the Union address is “middle class economics.”

“(Obama’s) going to talk about how middle class economics brought us back from the brink and put us to a place where the economy's growing, jobs are growing, the deficit is shrinking,” Pfeiffer said on NBC’s “Meet the Press on Sunday. “And it’s all out of his plan to deal, as I said, with wage stagnation and declining economic mobility in ways we can really help the middle class.”

Last year, new General Motors CEO Mary Barra was invited to sit in Michelle Obama’s box, as was Andra Rush, then the CEO of Wayne-based Rush Trucking Inc, an auto supplier. Obama opened his address last year citing many workers including “an auto worker (who) fine tuned some of the best, most fuel-efficient cars in the world, and did his part to help America wean itself off foreign oil.” He praised Rush for opening a facility in Detroit in 2012 to make parts for Ford’s trucks.

In the 2013 address, Obama praised Ford for bringing jobs back from Mexico. In the 2012 address, he said “some even said we should let (the auto industry) die. With a million jobs at stake, I refused to let that happen. ... We bet on American workers. We bet on American ingenuity. And tonight, the American auto industry is back,” he said.

The White House typically uses guests at the State of the Union to highlight achievements and issues of the day, a practice dating back to President Ronald Reagan in the early 1980s.

In 2012, then GM plant manager Alicia Boler-Davis of Detroit and Bryan Ritterby of Holland were among the guests. Boler-Davis was then plant manager of GM’s Orion Assembly plant. She led Obama and South Korea President Lee Myung-Bak on a tour of the plant and Pontiac Stamping in October 2011.

Ritterby, Obama noted in 2012, “was laid off from his job making furniture. He said he worried that at 55, no one would give him a second chance," Obama said. "But he found work at Energetx, a wind turbine manufacturer in Michigan. Before the recession, the factory only made luxury yachts. Today, it's hiring workers like Bryan.”