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GM’s Spring Hill workers await word on production

June 6, 2009

GM’s Spring Hill workers await word on production


SPRING HILL, Tenn. — Two decades after General Motors Corp. launched Saturn as its import-fighting, small car division in Tennessee, GM has 2,500 workers at the Spring Hill assembly plant sweating, worried they might not get the call when the next experiment begins.

“We are the small-car plant,” said Cliff Goff, 53, a longtime employee at Spring Hill who has worked for GM since 1975. “We introduced ourselves to the world as the Saturn company that was going to build the small car in America and be competitive with the Japanese.”

GM is planning a new subcompact to compete with foreign models and has decided to build it in the U.S. instead of China. Workers at Spring Hill, where GM in 1990 started production of the Saturn brand, are on a short list along with Orion Township and Janesville, Wis.

GM built the Spring Hill facility to make sure Saturn, at first its own division, wasn’t too heavily influenced by Detroit. They billed it as a “different kind of car company,” with a no-haggle sales technique and buyer loyalty gimmicks like the folksy homecoming picnics that drew owners to the Tennessee plant site.

The separation was short-lived, though, and GM soon absorbed leadership of Saturn back into its headquarters.

Just two years ago, after GM made a failed attempt to go upscale with bigger Saturns, the Spring Hill plant about 40 miles south of Nashville lost the brand. GM announced Friday that is selling the Saturn brand to auto racing titan Roger Penske’s Penske Automotive Group Inc., which plans to continue selling GM-made vehicles but eventually partner with foreign carmakers.

Since a $600-million overhaul of the Spring Hill plant, spurred partly by state tax credits, workers there have been building the eight-seat Chevrolet Traverse.
GM’s cost-cutting plan announced Monday as it filed for bankruptcy protection identifies Spring Hill and Orion as plants to be put on standby next fall, with Traverse production moving to Lansing.

Republican U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, who as governor brought the automotive industry to Tennessee and in the 1980s recruited GM to build the plant just down the road from Nissan’s U.S. base in Smyrna — said Spring Hill is an easier choice for GM now. Alexander said Tennessee is a right-to-work-law state, has a record of proven success with Saturn and Nissan and has Volkswagen building a plant in Chattanooga. He said Spring Hill has an experienced workforce and is close to hundreds of auto suppliers.

“I would say the new GM has a secret weapon in Spring Hill,” Alexander said.

That’s one side of the competition.

Democratic U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin issued a statement of support for the GM plant in his hometown of Janesville and “its strong and dedicated work force, which goes back generations.”

In Michigan, Megan Brown, a spokeswoman for Gov. Jennifer Granholm, said the governor has vowed to “be aggressive about keeping auto plants and jobs here in Michigan. We are in the hunt for this small car program” and doing everything possible to keep auto jobs in Michigan.

David Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, said Spring Hill is “probably in a pretty favorable position” among the three.

“It is a relatively new plant and it also is a plant that has had a history of good performance,” he said. Cole said he is “hard pressed to think of a reason why they wouldn’t” be picked.

Cole also said it is possible more than one of the three GM plants will get the call to make small cars if demand is strong.

He said GM is saying “these plants might have a future life just not right now. What they are essentially saying is those are viable plants. I think they fully expect that volume will come back and those plants will be used.”

“Over the next couple of years, I think we are looking at an industry that is going to be very profitable,” he said.

Tennessee’s chief business recruiter, Matt Kisber, said Spring Hill’s record of early success with Saturn is among its advantages as the plant competes to again build GM’s small car.

“I’d say in life some things come full circle, and this might be one of those things,” Kisber said.

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