Spring Hill workers turn to Plan B, With no small car at Spring Hill, many will take buyouts

June 27, 2009

Spring Hill workers turn to Plan B

With no small car at Spring Hill, many will take buyouts

By Bonna Johnson
THE TENNESSEAN

SPRING HILL — Workers at General Motors’ Spring Hill plant are expected to file applications for early retirement and buyouts at a faster pace now that they know they won’t have any work to do after Thanksgiving.

GM on Friday officially announced Spring Hill will not get a new small-car line and will go idle in November, when assembly of the Chevy Traverse moves to Lansing, Mich., leaving some 2,500 employees facing termination.

Roughly 500 employees with the most seniority will continue to work on some jobs in the darkened plant and in a companion engine shop that makes parts for other GM vehicles, though.

Tennessee political and labor leaders are pinning their long-term hopes on Spring Hill landing another GM vehicle once the economy turns around. GM officials said Spring Hill could have a "nose in the lead" if sales and auto production pick up in the months ahead.

But that hope may prove to be too much of a roll of the dice for some GM workers, who are ready to take GM’s latest buyout offer designed to trim the company’s work force nationwide.

"I guess I’ll go ahead and take the retirement option on the table," said Eddie Readhimer, 55, a 14-year assembly line veteran who now hopes to find another job in the area to make ends meet.

Workers have until July 24 to decide whether to accept special retirement and buyout packages, which vary with years of service and other factors.

Michael Herron, chairman of the United Auto Workers Local 1853, said he expects to see a rush of retirement applications because of the announcement that a competing GM plant in Orion Township, Mich., 40 miles from Detroit, won the small-car production.

Other workers say they will try to follow the Traverse to jobs in Lansing, Mich., later this year.

"You win some, you lose some," Herron said. "The lack of winning this product is not a reflection of lack of effort."

Speaking to more than 100 workers who gathered at the union hall Friday morning to hear the news firsthand, Herron told them: "You didn’t lose this product. It just happened we weren’t a good match and the incentives Tennessee offered were not enough to put us over the edge."

GM cites advantages

In winning GM’s new small car, Orion Township had a nearby stamping plant, a better supply base and a superior incentive package that included tax abatements going in its favor, GM said.

All three states made good proposals, but Michigan’s "was very, very, very good," Troy Clarke, president of General Motors North America, said in a conference call with reporters. A third plant in Janesville, Wis., was also in the running.

It was not a matter of getting one good offer and two bad ones, Clarke said.

GM will initially build a B-size subcompact, a car the size of the Chevrolet Aveo, at the soon-to-be retooled Michigan plant, Clarke said. At full production, the plant will make 160,000 vehicles annually.

Clarke noted that while Spring Hill opened to much fanfare as being innovative and advanced, "that was a couple of decades ago." It remains an outstanding facility, but, "the balance of our facilities have caught up to all that," Clarke said.

Clarke declined to detail what was in each state’s bid. Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen had publicly groused that GM wanted more than $200 million in upfront cash from Tennessee to retool the plant in Spring Hill.

Mike O’Rourke, president of Local 1853, said Michigan’s bid might have included federal stimulus funds, while Tennessee’s did not, and that may have made a difference. Tennessee economic development leaders declined to address that suggestion or detail the state’s final proposal.

"I was encouraged that (Clarke) confirmed that the company views the plant in Spring Hill as a very good facility that is likely to be an important part of GM’s manufacturing strategy in the years ahead," Bredesen said in a statement.

Matt Kisber, Tennessee’s commissioner of economic and community development, said, "Our state is committed to working with the company to develop new products for assembly there and to investing in the training of Tennessee workers to develop the skills needed to compete in the global marketplace. "

Local leaders skeptical

Many auto analysts believed the plant built on farmland in Maury County in the 1980s to manufacture Saturns was the best of the three vying for the small-car work.

"The most frustrating part of the decision is that it apparently is not based on sound, basic economic principles, which would clearly have brought this product to Spring Hill," said Maury County Mayor Jim Bailey, who noted the plant had recently undergone nearly $1 billion in upgrades.

Spring Hill is strategically located along major-market transportation corridors and has a great work force, Bailey said. He chided GM for making an "incredibly irresponsible business decision."

Others saw politics at play, saying that Tennessee’s red-state status and
the tough stance on aid to U.S. automakers by U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., could have been liabilities in the competition with Michigan, a Democratic stronghold.

"I want to officially ask Senator Bob Corker to join the Spring Hill team and work with this leadership group so we can put GM products in the fine, fine facility we have," O’Rourke said. Corker was an initial voice of dissent in the country’s bailout of the auto industry.

O’Rourke said he didn’t blame Corker but said, "He hasn’t helped; we don’t need anyone hurting our cause." Michigan’s politicians pulled together to advance their cause, O’Rourke said.

GM’s Clarke said Corker did not harm Spring Hill’s chances.

For his part, Corker said he was disappointed. As for his critics, "I don’t know of anyone at the federal level who has been more involved than Senator Corker in advocating for Spring Hill," his chief of staff, Todd Womack, responded.

Worker Richard Peters, 49, said he felt let down by GM, where he has worked for 27 years.

"I think GM let down a lot of people," said Peters, who works in the fabrication section. "We’re all just numbers to them."

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