ST. LOUIS — The commonplace has a way of dissolving into trauma the moment Doug Deaton leaves for his job on a General Motors passenger car assembly line.
“Every Sunday night, she cries for her daddy,” said Deaton’s wife, Paula, her voice breaking as she held the couple’s 8-year-old daughter, Allie. “I don’t know how to explain when he’s coming home again.”
It’s an explanation that vexes many of the nearly 200 of Deaton’s co-workers, men and women who responded to the crisis in the auto industry by transferring to a GM assembly plant in Kansas City, Kan.
Nearly three years after being transferred to the Fairfax Assembly Plant, many of the former Wentzville, Mo., workers are still managing long-distance relationships and split families. And now, as they watch the ongoing expansion of the Wentzville plant — a development considered highly unlikely back then — many of the workers ache to have their old jobs back and come back home to St. Louis.
GM executives, however, have so far given the workers little cause for hope.
The workers represent the majority of about 250 people who in 2009 faced a choice: GM offered them a $30,000 bonus to move to Fairfax and commit to three years; or they could take $4,800, commit to only six months, and retain their seniority rights in Wentzville, should openings occur.
Most workers figured their seniority rights would be useless in returning home. Back then, the Wentzville plant, a producer of old-school vans, had long been considered more likely to close than expand. The GM workers had already seen Chrysler and Ford shut down two other St. Louis-area production sites. They also were among the 975 GM workers sidelined as the company cut Wentzville production to a single shift.
A safer bet
The Kansas plant, which manufactures the Chevrolet Malibu and Buick Lacrosse, seemed like a safer bet.
In 2009, no one envisioned the rebound in van sales that would prompt GM to resurrect the second Wentzville shift, just as no one could have imagined the $380 million plant expansion to accommodate production of the Chevrolet Colorado mid-size pickup, which is expected to start next year.
For Doug Deaton and company, the decision to transfer to Kansas was a matter of economic survival.
He has since occupied an apartment 210 miles away from Paula and the kids Monday through Friday, commuting home each weekend for family time — more than three hours each way.
Paula Deaton, also an hourly GM employee, dodged the layoffs and has remained in Wentzville, where she’s continued to work an assembly line shift.
Their children, Allie and 13-year-old Bella, also remained in Wentzville.
The agreement the workers signed stipulated that Fairfax, not Wentzville, would be the home plant for the employees from that point forward. Among the transfers, there remains a fair amount of confusion about the terms of the relocation agreements.
The employees that accepted the $30,000 payout quickly realized the remuneration would never rise to the level of economic and personal hardship incurred by the move to Kansas. They found apartment rents near Kansas City were up to $1,000 a month; a cost some deferred by sharing units with co-workers. The commute got increasingly expensive as gas prices, about $2.65 in late 2009, steadily moved toward $4 a gallon.
But the biggest toll was exacted on family life. Some couples split up under the strain. Others struggled to maintain an apartment near Kansas City and a home in Wentzville. The stress forced many couples to seek marital or psychological counseling.
The autoworkers cite a variety of reasons they’ve remained in the Wentzville-Kansas City orbit each week.
For starters, there’s the union scale wages they’ve collected while millions of other Americans have collected unemployment the past three years. Meanwhile, the dismal housing market, coupled with the reluctance to relocate school age children, ruled out settling permanently in the Kansas City vicinity.
Besides, few are inclined to stake the future on a domestic auto maker that barely three years ago was teetering on the edge of insolvency.
Taking a chance
“Why would you take a chance and change your entire life again?” asked Doug Deaton, who along with Paula transferred to Missouri from a GM plant in upstate New York.
Resigned to the hardship of working in one community while their families lived in another, the transplants were able to view the weekly commute as a simple, if unpleasant matter of economic survival — until GM unexpectedly announced it was bringing back the second shift in January.
The announcement followed news that GM was shifting Chevy Colorado production to Wentzville from Shreveport, La. Reading between the lines, the hopeful transfers seized on the possibility of a premature end to their exile from Missouri.
GM instead recruited workers for the second shift off the street, the transferred workers said. The two-tiered salary provision embedded in the current United Auto Workers contract allows car companies to compensate new and temporary workers at about half the rate the company pays legacy rank-and-file workers, who make about $28 an hour.
Wentzville’s current payroll of approximately 1,800 hourly workers is expected to rise to about 3,000 with the arrival of the Colorado line. But it’s unclear how many of those jobs have been filled or how many might be available to the transferred workers in Kansas.
General Motors spokeswoman Melissa Zona said decisions about relocating workers are guided by the transfer and placement process embedded in the automakers’ pact with the UAW. She said she couldn’t discuss the circumstances of individual workers.
The UAW did not respond to requests for comment.