VOL. 124 | NO. 106 | Tuesday, June 2, 2009
GM Idling Tenn. Plant; It Could Get New Small Car
BILL POOVEY | Associated Press Writer
SPRING HILL, Tenn. (AP) - As one of 2,500 workers at the General Motors plant that will be idled at least temporarily in November, Michelle Burley has a suggestion for young car buyers: "Buy American and protect American jobs."
"I just feel that the young kids nowadays don't know the history, what General Motors has done for the communities, for the schools and in wartime," said Burley, a breast cancer survivor and single mother of four who has 28 years with GM. "They see a cute car. They just don't understand the history of what is going on."
GM announced Monday that the Spring Hill assembly plant will be idled and production of its vehicle, the Chevrolet Traverse, is moving to Lansing, Mich. The company, which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, also announced it will shut nine plants permanently.
But it gave Spring Hill workers and United Auto Workers officials some hope because the plant is on standby, meaning it could still have a future building vehicles for the largest U.S. automaker.
Burley currently works in the parts warehouse at the Spring Hill facility, which was built to be GM's small car division with the Saturn brand. She said she knew there was a threat that GM might shut down the Spring Hill plant when she bought a new home – a house in foreclosure – six months ago.
"I wanted somewhere for my kids to be," she said. "I'm not going to stop living."
If GM decides not to reopen, "I'll have to get another job," said Burley, 50, who gets cancer treatments monthly. "I'll do something. I'm just not going to lay around and die."
Burley's grandfather and mother both worked for GM in Michigan.
Todd Horton, a longtime United Auto Workers Union worker and editor of the newspaper for Local 1853, said GM told workers it doesn't know how long production will be shut down and resumption will depend on market conditions. Spring Hill will compete against another plant in Orion, Mich., for the right to build a new subcompact car that GM considers key to its survival.
Union officials expressed disappointment and measured optimism.
"This is not as bad as it could be," said Mike Herron, chairman of UAW Local 1853's bargaining committee. "I'm an optimist. We would have preferred the Traverse continue to be built. The absolute worst would be a plant closure."
Herron thinks Spring Hill may have a leg up because a recent retooling to build the Traverse gave the plant the most modern equipment in GM.
"There's a billion dollars worth of equipment put in this place over the last 18 months," Herron said.
Herron points to another advantage. The UAW local and Spring Hill work force have agreed to operate the plant seven days a week without overtime, he said.
The plant has had more flexible work rules than others thanks to its history. Car production began there in 1990 with the Saturn, GM's small-car answer to Japanese competitors. The factory made more than 3.7 million vehicles for the Saturn brand until 2007, when it shut for the Traverse retooling.
Full-scale production of the Traverse began in October 2008.
GM said the stamping, polymers, service parts and Powertrain operations at Spring Hill will continue.
State Sen. Bill Ketron, a Republican from Murfreesboro whose district includes Spring Hill, said GM officials told him the plant will phase down to 604 employees when assembly production ends.
U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, whose role in federal government bailout talks has been criticized by the UAW, said he's disappointed for all the Tennessee families affected by Spring Hill's uncertainty.
"On the other hand, I am glad there are going to be at least 600 jobs there and the plant is not going to be closed, but idled," Corker told The Associated Press. "We are going to continue to work with GM and Gov. (Phil) Bredesen to do everything we can to see that that plant ends up being utilized."
Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who was governor when GM picked Spring Hill as the site for Saturn, said he hopes the bankruptcy will make GM a stronger, more competitive company. But he doesn't want the federal government directing its operations.
As GM faltered, the federal government injected $50 billion of taxpayer money and in return got 60 percent of the company's equity. President Barack Obama's administration insisted on the departure of GM's top executive and pushed the company to file for bankruptcy.
"GM has a better chance to succeed, and the people in Middle Tennessee have a better chance of getting their jobs back, if the federal government gets out. I want to see the federal government out of the business of running auto companies as quickly as possible," Alexander said in Nashville.
He said he spoke with the GM president, but received no time frame for a plant reopening.
Spring Hill Mayor Michael Dinwiddie said GM's announcement that the plant will be idled or placed on "stand by" status is "bittersweet" and will affect many families.
"I think it is going to affect the whole region financially."
He added: "GM has largely shaped the entire country. I don't know how you replace an employer like that."
Associated Press writers Kristin M. Hall and Lucas L. Johnson II contributed to this story from Nashville.
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