Energy Issue Hits Home in Syracuse
SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- When Dan Maffei is pressed to say what the No. 1 issue is for voters in the 25th district, his answer is the economy and jobs, despite the fact that gas prices are just as high here as they are elsewhere in the country.
But as is the case across the nation, the local economic climate and the high cost of energy are intimately related, as became clear when Maffei visited a lunch picnic for United Auto Workers retirees Tuesday on the grounds where the New York State Fair will begin next week.
The gathering featured an older crowd grazing on a huge buffet of food, and the questions for Maffei were mostly about jobs and why younger people were moving away from Syracuse. One retiree complained that the auto industry hasn't shifted enough to manufacturing hybrid cars and pickups. "There's no doubt that the management in Detroit has been slow to switch," Maffei responded.
This was not an environmentalists' picnic. The question about building more hybrids hits close to home for auto workers in the area, because their jobs could be at stake.
The UAW represents workers at the New Process Gear plant in DeWitt, just east of Syracuse. Previously owned by Chrysler, the factory is now owned by Magna International, and it makes drivetrains for SUVs and other light trucks -- exactly the segment of the auto market that has been hurt most by spiraling gas prices. In February, Magna and the union reached agreement on a new contract that kept the plant open but cut workers' wages, and now there's talk of more pay cuts and even closure of the facility.
"The heartburn, if you will, is we've got a recently ratified contract and now management wants to open it back up," says Dave Scalisi, an official with the UAW Local 624.
"We're looking for ways for the company to save money without cutting pay," Scalisi said, adding that he understood that demand for trucks and SUVs had gone off a cliff. That's why he and other workers at the NPG factory would be eager for Magna to convert the plant to manufacturing parts for hybrids or other alternative fuel vehicles.
"We can make anything," Scalisi said. "We'll make vacuum cleaners if we have to."
The issue set -- and the audience -- were decidedly different a couple of hours later, when Maffei went to the mostly black Southside neighborhood for a roundtable with local residents and business owners at a community resource center. There is no talk here of high gas prices, Iraq or trade agreements.
But while the neighborhood has changed, Maffei's theme sounds a lot like the one he voiced Tuesday morning in the tonier Armory Square neighborhood.
"The Southside of Syracuse is a place of endless potential that has so far, at least in the last several decades, been unrealized," he said.
The prescription here isn't so different either, according to Maffei: better education and better jobs. There are programs to train workers in new skills, programs to place disadvanted young people in internships and programs to provide free tutoring for high school students, all of which could use more federal or local government funding. Mike Atkins, who runs the center, points out that Maffei knows the right people in Washington already and would surely be an "MVP" in Congress.
But some attendees of the roundtable brought with them problems that defy easy answers. One woman said she was an unemployed single mother of eight children, and that she had recently finished nearly two years in prison for attempted robbery. "I know for a fact that my criminal background is what's stifling me from actually obtaining employment. What can I do about that?" she asked.
"There's clearly not a whole lot of answers right now," Maffei answered after a pause. "But we've got to create them. And I will say this, it's really foolish if we don't."
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