GM gives Spring Hill workers two options for move

July 13, 2009

GM gives Spring Hill workers two options for move

Heading for Michigan means more cash, but home is here

By Bonna Johnson
THE TENNESSEAN

Kerry Garland knows a thing or two — or 10 — about living the life of a GM gypsy.

He’s worked at 10 General Motors plants, in five states, no less, before moving to Spring Hill, Tenn., in 1990.

Now, as General Motors emerges from its federal bankruptcy proceedings and plans to idle the Middle Tennessee plant starting in November, employees who moved south to work there a quarter-century ago when Saturn opened may be on the move again.

Their choice is to take the chance that Spring Hill may one day get another GM vehicle to build or seek an immediate paycheck by following the Chevrolet Traverse crossover vehicle that they have been building to a plant in Lansing, Mich., that will now get to assemble it.

"If I still had 10 more years to go until retirement, I’d probably make that move," said the 55-year-old Garland, who has enough time with GM after 35 years to retire. "Here, it’s just a bunch of promises."

GM gypsy is the name workers have for the people who have transferred from plant to plant over the years as the company closed factories and cut its labor force. For many Spring Hill workers, it’s a concept they’d long forgotten after years of stable work here.

If they decide to follow the Traverse, though, they’ll have to choose whether they ever want to come back. GM will pay just $4,800 in relocation costs to anyone who wants to keep their Spring Hill recall rights for a job here, if the local plant survives. The company is offering a much higher $30,000 if a worker signs away all rights to return home.

"I was hoping my moving days were over," said 45-year-old Wade Berry, a 25-year GM veteran, with almost 20 years at Spring Hill. "I’m too old to start over."

But Berry figures he’s too young for early retirement and doesn’t have enough years to qualify for a special buyout. If he works five more years, he could retire with full benefits, and that’s why he feels lured to Lansing.

"I’d probably just cut my ties," sighed Berry, who is single.

Deadline is approaching

Newly emerged from bankruptcy, GM expects to lay off some 2,500 Spring Hill workers in November. Roughly another 500 with the most seniority will continue to work on some jobs in the darkened plant and in a companion powertrain shop that makes engines for other GM vehicles.

Scrambling for back-up plans, workers have until an initial July 24 deadline to accept buyout and early retirement packages from the company. But there are no promises from management whether they’ll know by then if Spring Hill will get another product or how many positions in Lansing will be guaranteed to Spring Hill workers.

All of that is key information that would likely play into their calculations.

As of yet, they’re not even sure if there will be any Lansing jobs, said Michael Herron, chairman of the United Auto Workers Local 1853, who has to keep expectations contained until GM and international UAW officials make a decision.

Local union officials have made a request for the "maximum" amount of jobs to flow with the Traverse to Lansing’s Delta Township plant, Herron said.

The number of jobs, which would be filled first by those with the most seniority, could range from 200 to 300 to as many as 700 to 1,000, according to unofficial estimates that workers say they’ve heard. Herron stressed there’s no agreement yet.

It’s unclear when Spring Hill will get an answer, Herron said, but he hopes it’s before the July 24 deadline for buyouts. "There is a sense of urgency from our members," he said.

At the same time, many workers want to stay in Spring Hill and were heartened by scuttlebutt in recent days that their plant could become an eventual manufacturing site for the next generation of the Chevrolet Colorado/GMC Canyon midsize pickup trucks, the next-generation Cadillac Escalade or a car-based pickup similar to the Chevrolet Avalanche.

"A majority of team members in this facility are deeply rooted in the community," Herron said. "They’re deacons of their churches, Little League presidents and coaches, Boy Scout and Girl Scout leaders and Rotary Club, Lions Club and Kiwanis Club members."

Indeed, Lindsey Maynard is torn between the life he’s made for himself in Thompson’s Station and returning to Michigan where he started his GM career years ago.

"I would rather stay here," said the 48-year-old Maynard, an operations technician in the engine shop. "My wife has a good job here. My kids grew up here."

But he lacks three more years before reaching full retirement with GM, and, if he can’t be guaranteed work at Spring Hill — and Lansing has jobs — he plans to move back.

He’ll take his youngest son, who is 18 years old, with him so he can attend trade school up north. And they could move in with his mother, who still lives there, Maynard said.

His wife, a special education assistant in the Williamson County school system, would stay behind with their oldest son, who just got a job at a paint shop in Brentwood. Given the weak housing market, it would be tough to sell their home anyway, he noted.

"I’d stay long enough to get my retirement and come back," said Maynard, who plans to opt for a relocation package that would keep his recall rights alive here.

Families feel the stress

Being a GM gypsy can be hard on a family, Garland said. He left his family behind in Indianapolis, when he worked stints at GM plants in Ohio, often living in a camper and seeing his kids on the weekends.

When Garland worked for GM in Dayton, Ohio, he commuted 138 miles one way, from Indianapolis.

"It’s a lot of stress to be away from home," the second-generation autoworker said. "It’s a lot of strain on the family."

And there are other issues too, like the cost of keeping two households and the constant driving or flying to see family on the weekends.

Returning to Michigan, even if it’s your home state, doesn’t guarantee a smooth transition.

"You’ll go into that plant with more seniority than half of those people. They’ll not be happy to see you. I’ve done that, and I know the feeling," Garland said.

He’s had fellow workers tell him in the past, "It’s not right for you to come up and take our jobs," he said.

But with a surplus of employees and a shortage of work, jockeying for jobs will be part of life for GM workers in the foreseeable future.

"There are lots of ‘what-ifs’ and ‘buts’ going around," Garland said. "People’s emotions are all over the scale."

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