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Wilmington workers stunned by plant closure

NEWPORT, Del. - Cathryn Williams emerged from the General Motors Corp. assembly plant here at shift's end today with a defiant smile, even as other coworkers drove off with somber, distant stares.

NEWPORT, Del. - Cathryn Williams emerged from the General Motors Corp. assembly plant here at shift's end today with a defiant smile, even as other coworkers drove off with somber, distant stares.

"I trust in God to keep me through this all, to make a way for me," said Williams, 43, a quarter-century veteran of the once-indomitable automaker that declared bankruptcy today and put her factory on its hit list.

"GM is not the end of my life," said the mother from Bear, whose pension, benefits, and entire future became a giant question mark when company officials, on a day of high drama involving even the president of the United States, told employees it would shut them down July 31.

"GM," the longtime line operator said, "does not make me."

Just months after Chrysler L.L.C. silenced its sprawling Newark, Del., plant as that automaker hurtled toward its own government-backed bankruptcy, GM today said it would do away with its Wilmington-area factory, a 62-year-old operation with 1,060 hourly and salaried employees.

The decision is part of a government-backed bankruptcy aimed at keeping GM, like its counterpart Chrysler earlier this year, from collapsing. But it is coming at a cost: Dealerships are on the chopping block; 12 more factories will vanish, and the employees and businesses who make money off them must make do with much less.

By shutting down plants deemed too costly, the debt-crippled company is trying to rebuild itself into a more efficient operation capable one day soon of paying its bills again without the aid of taxpayers' dollars.

In the words of GM chief executive officer Fritz Henderson, who spoke to the media after President Obama gave a national address, GM hopes to become "a leaner, more cost-competitive company."

Though the actual bankruptcy was a stunning historic event, GM had been working toward today's dramatic apex for months.

The automaker had been preparing its Chapter 11 declaration with the Obama administration and announced two weeks ago plans to close 1,100 dealerships nationwide, including an undisclosed number locally.

A GM spokeswoman, Susan Garontakos, suggested the company would stick with that plan, announced in mid-May, but said the nitty-gritty would be worked out in court.

"We have to wait for the court-supervised process to start in order to understand where we are with our dealers," she said.

Late last year, GM laid off an entire shift of workers at its plant here, leaving just the single shift that left work today at 2:37 p.m.

"We kind of saw it coming because the politicians kept letting the jobs go overseas," said Terry Anderson, 50, a pipefitter from Newark who has worked here for 26 years.

And yet, even with signs of distress pervasive since late last year, when GM began drawing cash from taxpayers to stay afloat, workers were stunned by today's developments.

They learned of GM's decision during an 8 a.m. meeting on the assembly floor, where they were told their factory would be shut down. They could not believe how soon things will come to an end.

"It was quicker than we expected, how quickly they were going to get everything done," Anderson said, his Chevrolet Trailblazer idling by an exit of the 3.2-million-square-foot plant about 3 p.m.

Officials for the union representing Anderson and his coworkers, UAW Local 435 of Wilmington, distributed paperwork offering advice about "where we can look for new jobs," Anderson said.

But there was scarce information about whether the company, now in bankruptcy, would pay workers severance, transfer them to other plants, or honor pensions, those leaving the plant said.

"We don't know anything," said a 28-year employee who sped off on a motorcycle without giving his name.

"Everything's up in the air," said Sharon, a factory worker who was to have celebrated her 30th anniversary with GM on Aug. 1. She drove off in her Chevy Malibu without wanting to give her full name.

Local UAW officials mostly declined to discuss the news with the media.

"This is surprising, that they're going to close it and close it so quickly," said Jim Brown, Local 435's financial secretary. "We've been kept in the dark on everything."

GM said the Delaware plant would close, in part, because it manufactures two snazzy roadsters that have fallen out of vogue in the recession: the Pontiac Solstice and the Saturn Sky. GM also is eradicating Saturn and will phase out Pontiac entirely.

Timothy E. Lee, General Motors' North America vice president of manufacturing, said that "the decision was extremely difficult" to shutter this plant, which he called one of the company's "can-do" factories.

But being on the East Coast, it is far away from suppliers, he said, making it "our most challenging location in terms of freight costs."

Asked if workers here would be offered transfers, he said: "The team at Wilmington will get their fair chance."

Beyond the plant, the mood was grim, too.

From business owners such as Robert Nedwick of Steve's One Stop across the street, to scrap-metal collector Jeff Jackson, who ran out of gas in front of the plant, the news hit close to home.

Jackson, 39, talked about tough times, as his employee, Allen Belile, 43, dumped a gallon of gas into the van they use to collect used appliances from apartment complexes. The metal from refrigerators, air conditioners, and lawn mowers is recycled and sold to automakers, among others.

"We went from making $300 a day apiece to about $80 a day," said Jackson, comparing things with the way they were a year ago.

"There are some days when we only make $20 a day," Belile said.

But both said they would press on - as everyone must, including the workers soon to end shifts across the street.

"We ain't just sitting home just thinking about it," Belile said.

And then the men running Jackson's Recycling & Clean-Outs drove off in their big old van.

Contact staff writer Maria Panaritis at 215-854-2431 or