Spring Hill workers torn between buyout offer, GM plant’s uncertain future

June 10, 2009

Spring Hill workers torn between buyout offer, GM plant’s uncertain future

By Bonna Johnson
THE TENNESSEAN

SPRING HILL — Andrew Mills has a weighty decision to make: stick with General Motors after 15 years at the Spring Hill plant as a second-generation auto worker or consider a buyout package that would leave him and his family without health insurance.

"It’s kind of scary," said the 36-year-old Mills, who has an 8-year-old daughter. "Pretty much everyone is thinking about their options."

The clock is ticking as General Motors moves to cut its work force even more nationally as part of its bankruptcy reorganization. Employees face a July 24 initial deadline on whether to accept a company buyout that varies with years of service and other factors.

That means workers like Mills are forced to decide whether to take cash and other incentives now without first knowing the Spring Hill plant’s long-term fate. It’s not clear whether they’ll still have jobs after November when the plant here stops making a Chevrolet crossover vehicle and goes dark for an undetermined length of time.

Last week, GM announced the plant would go idle in November and production of the Chevrolet Traverse would shift to a facility in Lansing, Mich.

Spring Hill probably will compete with at least two other GM plants in Michigan and Wisconsin to build a new small car for the automaker, but the outcome remains uncertain.

Should GM say it intends to build its next-generation small car in Spring Hill, the decision to stay would be a no-brainer for Mills and many others of the auto plant’s 2,900 employees who have made lives for their families in communities near GM’s high-tech plant 40 miles south of Nashville.

But if the small car project goes to Michigan or Wisconsin, the equation that workers must use to guide their future turns into a squeeze play.

There has been no commitment by GM officials to advise workers of the fate of the Spring Hill plant before the deadline to accept or reject the automaker’s buyout offers. After the deadline, workers would get another week to change their minds.

Do they hang on? Retire early? Take GM’s latest buyout offers or cut all ties to the auto industry and start over?

"It’s a gamble," said Mills, who spent time earlier this week with his daughter at a United Auto Workers gym here. At the same time, though, GM executives have said the small-car decision could come "within weeks," company spokesman Chris Lee said.

"These are life-altering decisions they’re being asked to make," said Michael Herron, chairman of United Auto Workers Local 1853, which represents hourly workers at the plant. "I think everyone is really wrestling with it."

Details about the incentive packages were mailed to workers last week, and question-and-answer sessions are being held at the plant today and Thursday, Herron said.

Workers weigh options

GM hopes to shed as many as 16,000 jobs nationally, Herron said. That includes some 600 jobs at Spring Hill, said Jeremy Anwyl, chief executive of the auto research Web site Edmunds.com.

"None of this is guaranteed, and that is what makes it so difficult," Anwyl said. If a GM employee accepts a buyout and starts hunting for another auto industry job, it could prove difficult with a rising U.S. unemployment rate and shrinking work forces for all U.S. carmakers.

After 28 years working for GM, including in the steel department in Spring Hill, 60-year-old Mel Laroco says he is thinking about retiring.

"I don’t want to wait. Maybe I’ll be waiting for nothing," said Laroco, who would only qualify for a pro-rated pension because he is two years shy of 30 years of service.

Meanwhile, Bobby Estrada, 48, has spent half his life working for the automaker, including stints in California and Missouri. "I’m not going to quit," he said. "I’ll hang in there."

The operations technician is considering applying for a job in Lansing, Mich., where production of the Traverse will shift later this year.

"Maybe they’ll need workers to follow our product," Estrada said. The second-generation autoworker would like to get to 30 years on the job so he can retire with a full pension.

Single mom Denise Madden, 54, is weighing whether to retire early and draw a smaller pension or move back to Kansas City, where relatives live. But Madden said she’d hate to leave Tennessee.

"This is home now," said Madden, whose adult daughters and one granddaughter live with her in Franklin. "My girls love it here."

Early retirement sounds somewhat enticing to 51-year-old Bruce Pittard, a material handler at the plant. And with 30 years on the job, he could draw a full pension worth some 60 percent of his pay.

"I’d like to, but I have 15- and 16-year-old kids," Pittard said, adding that it could be tricky making ends meet only on his pension.

"There are uncertainties on both sides," said Karen Boroff, a labor relations expert and dean of the Stillman School of Business at Seton Hall University in New Jersey.

For many workers, the question becomes whether they’re emotionally ready to retire or financially able to do so with such possible expenses as children’s college tuition or other factors in play.

Although workers are anxious for news about whether their jobs can be saved at Spring Hill, auto industry analyst Erich Merkle said that decision might be slow in coming, especially now that the federal government has a stake in GM.

"The political component becomes a real wild card," the Grand Rapids, Mich.-based analyst said, noting that politicians in various states will try to protect their turf and save jobs.

Richard Moreland, 57, a pipe fitter at Spring Hill, is thinking of retiring early after 24 years with GM, even though he would be penalized by $400 to $500 on his monthly pension check.

"We just didn’t expect things to work out this way," said Moreland, who had hoped to work for GM at least a couple of more years. Now, Moreland may decide to retire instead and take a part-time job to make a little extra money.

"We could wait to see if they do bring another vehicle here," he said. "But there are just too many ifs involved."

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