LANSING, Mich. – As a 10-year-old, Rollin Green was awestruck when he saw the line of hulking orange-and-silver robotic arms swinging with rhythmic precision during his first visit to an auto plant. But something impressed him even more:
His dad worked there.
As a fifth grader, Rollin didn't daydream about becoming a baseball player or an astronaut. He wanted to be an autoworker. Just like his father, Mike.
And grandfather, Richard. And great-grandfather, Kenneth.
And grandmother, Janice. And step-grandmother, Connie. And aunt, Cindy. And great uncles, Bob and Tom, among others.
Over seven decades and four generations, the Greens have together poured nearly 300 years into building Chevys, Oldsmobiles, Buicks, Pontiacs and Cadillacs. They've shared holidays, deer hunting trips, even the same 160 acres of land 25 miles away (they jokingly call it 'Green Acres'). They've traveled the same path with almost clockwork precision — making a beeline from high school graduation to a General Motors plant.
Through layoffs and strikes, births and deaths, boom times and bust, the family survived — and thrived — thanks to autos.
With GM's future uncertain — the automaker received $13.4 billion in rescue loans and faces a Feb. 17 restructuring plan deadline — Rollin Green may represent the end of the line.
He was recently laid off from the Cadillac plant.
"It's tough," he says, studying a photo of four generations of Greens (and GM workers) as he sits in the office of his father, the president of United Auto Workers Local 652. "It's always been the family business. A great-paying job, with great benefits, close to home. It was pretty much everything I ever wanted. ... It's provided me with whatever I had growing up."
Rollin started working for GM straight out of high school. With overtime and night shifts, he earned $37,000 in about nine months. Four years later, he bought a four-bedroom house. Now 23, he still holds out hope of returning — hope that "things turn around. I'd like to be there to see it happen."
The next few months, he figures, will determine his future — as well as that of GM.
The story of the Green family offers a glimpse into the ups and downs of the American auto industry over a half-century — from symbol of the nation's industrial might to the brink of collapse.
The Greens were around when GM was on top of the world, when Toyotas and Hondas were not yet a fixture on the nation's highways. They built Cutlasses, Skylarks and Grand Ams, they bought Camaros and Silverados, their union grew stronger, their paychecks got bigger.
But they were there, too, when the energy crisis took hold, the demand for smaller cars increased, foreign automakers started building plants in this country — and buying American lost its luster.
Today, as GM fights for survival, the Greens are emblematic of so many autoworkers who worry about the future and mull over the mistakes of the past — even as they acknowledge they're not surprised by the latest turn of events.
"It's been coming a long time, I saw it 25 years ago," declares Richard Green, who spent nearly 40 years at GM and the UAW before retiring in 1993.
"There's enough blame to go around," the 73-year-old says, choosing his words carefully. "The quality dropped. We lost the loyalty of the customers. They stand for the national anthem, but they're not as patriotic as they should be. A lot of people will wave the flag ... but not buy an American-made car. If they can save 2 cents on an item made in China, they'll save that 2 cents."
His wife, Connie, another former GM worker, sees the problem through a wider lens.
"I wish I could come up with some magic solution to start building things here...," she says. "Steel's gone. Textile's gone. And now autos."
The auto industry still employs hundreds of thousands of workers in this country, with much of the growth coming from foreign carmakers based in the nonunion South. One sign of the times: UAW membership, which peaked at 1.5 million in 1979, was about 465,000 by the end of 2007 — the first drop below a half-million since World War II.
As the Big Three slashed their work force by about 40 percent — to 241,000 — from 2001 to 2007, foreign automakers in the United States boosted employment by nearly a third, to more than 113,000, according to the Center for Automotive Research.
While 2008 was a disastrous year all around for the auto industry, GM marked its centennial in a sea of red ink: Shares plunged 87 percent. More than $21 billion in losses were recorded in the first three quarters.
"Being a blue-collar worker in a highly competitive environment is not a very pleasant place to be in a world that has gone flat," says Douglas Baird, a University of Chicago Law School professor and bankruptcy specialist who follows the industry. "Auto assembly-line jobs don't put you on the trajectory to the middle class anymore."
The opportunities seemed endless when Kenneth Green, Rollin's great-grandfather, started the family tradition toward the end of World War II.
At the time, automakers were phasing out of their wartime conversion that had turned car factories into defense plants.
Kenneth Green, a tall, bony, cribbage-loving, Detroit Tigers fan left his family's farm outside the village of Morrice and traveled about 25 miles to become a tool and die maker for Oldsmobile.
When his son, Richard, turned 18, he followed his dad's career, breaking only for a stint in the Marines.
At Oldsmobile, Richard's starting salary was about $2 an hour. More than money, what made being an autoworker especially appealing was security.
"If you went to work here, you were a good employee, and you did things right, you'd have a job for life," he says.
Today, the elder Green, solemn-faced with a thatch of silver hair, snow-white mustache and glasses, remembers an era when Americans could carry their lunch buckets to the same factory their entire working lives.
He moved up from the assembly line to skilled tradesman. He took his family on RV trips to both coasts.
"The '50s and '60s were the golden years," says Mike Smith, director of the Walter Reuther Library at Wayne State University. "The autoworker was the industrial elite of the manufacturing world."
Autoworkers earned more than teachers, even some professors. The UAW negotiated enviable contracts. Pensions. Health care. Seniority. Some of these generous benefits would saddle the automakers with enormous "legacy" costs 50 years later.
The UAW was a force, too, in American politics; its charismatic leader, Walter Reuther, turned his office into a bully pulpit for social change. Nearly 40 years later, Reuther's photo hangs in Mike Green's office.
Even as GM prospered, the first wave of smaller, foreign cars began appearing on the nation's highways. Most Americans, though, still subscribed to the bigger-is-better school in the '60s, favoring muscle cars with huge engines, among others.
The 1970s forever shifted the landscape when an oil embargo suddenly created long lines at the gas pump. Americans turned to small, fuel-efficient Hondas, Datsuns and Toyotas, now readily available.
"There was a certain amount of hubris among the automakers," Smith says. "They got complacent."
When they scrambled to catch up, some of their early efforts were flops, such as the Ford Pinto and Chevy Vega.
By the late '70s, one of the Big Three was in deep trouble: Chrysler Corp. needed a federal loan to stave off bankruptcy.
GM, though, still seemed secure enough for a third generation of Greens.
Richard Green's daughter, Cindy DeLau, was so sure of it, she chose the assembly line over a college campus in 1977.
Her brother, Mike Green, followed 10 months later at age 17, just weeks after finishing high school. He earned $7 an hour, piled up overtime and considered himself lucky.
"Some of the old-timers would say, 'You've got three days to learn this job.' You don't learn it, they'd bring you over to this swinging window, open it and people would be lined up and they'd say, 'If you don't want to do it, one of these guys will.' "
He eventually moved into a full-time union job. Today, the 48-year-old UAW local president, a husky man with a salt-and-pepper goatee, has an easygoing presence whether he's mingling with bingo-playing GM retirees or reminiscing with his father about all the changes they've seen.
One of the most dramatic changes — the fast-growing popularity of Japanese autos — caught him a bit by surprise.
"I never really saw it as a threat," Mike Green says. "It was a given. 'Hey, we build GM and people are going to buy it.' "
His sister, Cindy, says it first hit her when she vacationed in California and saw so many foreign cars.
"I guess it was a shock," she says. "I didn't realize outside of my comfort circle what was happening."
As foreign car makers started building plants on American soil, Mike Green's UAW and the U.S. companies started working as partners. It was a matter of survival.
But cooperation could only do so much in the '90s.
Technology — advances in robotics and computers — had made it possible for auto plants to be as productive as they were in 1970s with just a third of the workers, says Smith, the auto historian.
The public also was buying more foreign-brand cars — they accounted for more than half those sold in this country in 2008, according to the Center for Automotive Research.
Even a respite from the gloom — the explosion in sales of American-made sport utility vehicles — hit a wall last summer when gas prices soared to $4.50 a gallon as the economy sank deeper into recession.
Mike Green's UAW office is decorated with mementoes chronicling his family's long history in the auto industry.
He has his grandfather's 10- and 15-year service pins, a brick from the former Oldsmobile headquarters known as "the marble palace."
Much has changed since Green joined a UAW local that boasted about 15,000 members in the late 1970s. "Now, we're down to 3,000," he says. "It's devastating."
As a union leader, Green is waiting to see what happens with the government's multibillion dollar rescue and the turnaround plan. "It burns me when I hear bailout," he says. "It's a loan. The banks got bailed out. They don't build anything. We build something."
As a father, he's thinking, too, about his son, knowing the fourth generation of Greens to work at GM may be the last. He says he tried to push Rollin toward college.
"I've always said, 'Rollin ... if Plan A doesn't work out, what's Plan B? You've got to have that, son.' That's one of the things he didn't want to look at," he says. "Well, I'm sure he's looking at it a little harder now."
It's possible, he says, Rollin will have to move away to find work, nearly 70 years after his great-grandfather left his farm to start the family's autoworking tradition.
"He'd be the first in the family to go somewhere," he adds. "It's sad. A father likes to have his children close ... but those days are numbered."