President Barack Obama told a crowd of Orion Township autoworkers on Friday afternoon that a new trade agreement with South Korea will help maintain their jobs and create new ones.
He then received a roar of applause when he told the crowd of about 380 that they were "proving all the skeptics wrong."
His visit to the General Motors Orion Assembly plant, which produces the Chevy Sonic and Buick Verano, comes on the heels of Congress's approval of the free-trade agreement.
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak accompanied Obama. The two toured the plant and spoke to a crowd of about 380 plant workers and GM executives.
Lee, speaking through a translator, told the crowd he was "deeply impressed" by the way they operate the Orion factory.
"I'm impressed you care about environment," Lee said. "You're building excellent cars in this factory."
The Orion plant closed in 2009 after GM filed for bankruptcy protection. It reopened a year ago.
"I'm confident this factory is going to continue," he said as the crowd cheered.
"I want to give you this promise that the free-trade agreement will not take away any of your jobs, but will create more jobs for you and your family."
Trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama that were approved by Congress this week reduce or end tariffs faced by U.S. exporters and are the biggest since the North American Free Trade Agreement took effect in 1994.
The Korean deal would end tariffs on about 95 percent of U.S. exports of industrial and consumer goods within five years and support about 70,000 American jobs, according to the White House.
The accord provides GM, Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler Group LLC wider access to the Korean market while protecting the U.S. industry against a surge in imports from Seoul-based Hyundai Motor Co. and affiliate Kia Motors Corp.
Obama said specifically that the agreement will support 70,000 jobs and bring balance to both economies.
"In the last decade, we became a country known for what we bought and what we consumed," Obama said. "We spent a lot of money and took on a lot of debt. That didn't necessarily create a lot of jobs."
Obama said "Made in America" was his goal when taking office.
"That's why one of the first decisions I made as president was to save the U.S. auto industry from collapse," he said.
"Today, I can stand here and say the investment paid off," Obama said. "The hundreds of thousands of jobs that have been saved made it worth it. The taxpayers are being repaid — plants like this are turning out groundbreaking cars in the United States."
Obama said Detroit is a city where people are "proving all the skeptics wrong."
"We roll up our sleeves and remember our history and say there is nothing we cannot do," he shouted. "You are all a testament to the American spirit — these cars are a testimony to the American spirit."
Gov. Rick Snyder and Detroit Mayor Dave Bing were in attendance, as were GM CEO Daniel Akerson and UAW President Bob King.
Larry Campbell, a team leader on the Orion plant overseas dock who lives in Rochester Hills, accompanied Lee and Obama on the tour and described the pipeline for parts from other countries to the Orion plant.
He also took some time to share his thanks and support of the president.
"I told him thank you for believeing in our company and thank you for giving us a chance," Campbell said.
Orion plant workers who attended the event came in on an off day — the plant is open Monday through Thursday. Niki Ward, an assembly line worker from Davison, said the plant had been abuzz all week with preparations for the event.
"This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," she said.
Across the street from the plant before and during the event, .
Some were there to show their general disdain for Obama's policies, but a group of about 20 Chinese Americans had a particular message for South Korea’s president regarding the deported Falun Gong practioners, who have been persecuted after being sent back to China.
For those who simply opposed the free-trade agreement, such as Tim Drutis of Clarkston, it was an opportunity to make his views known.
“The Korean Free Trade Agreement is much like the North American Free Trade Agreement," Drutis said. "It’s going to send jobs to Korea.
“The Korean economy is a 10th of the U.S. It’s just not a good deal to trade straight with someone who has a 10th to offer what you do. It’s a terrible deal.
“Honest truth is it’s going to cost us jobs. Good-paying automotive jobs.”