End of the Line? Future unwritten as Spring Hill plant goes idle

End of the Line? Future unwritten as Spring Hill plant goes idle

A notice at the GM Welcome Center in Spring Hill tells visitors that plant tours have been canceled as above hangs a banner of the Chevy Traverse and above that a banner from the Saturn days with a quote from Mike Bennett that begins with “Partnership and commitment… .” The plant shuts down Wednesday with no commitment for the future from GM. Staff photo by Susan W. Thurman

 

After two decades, the GM Spring Hill assembly plant will shut its doors, leaving thousands without jobs during the worst economic times since the Great Depression.

The plant, which will produce its final vehicle Wednesday, will shut down a majority of its operations.

With fewer than 24 hours before the last Chevrolet Traverse rolls off the line, the mood around the plant mirrored that of a graduating class, only without the air of celebration.

Mike Minor, who puts the finishing touches on vehicles, said everyone is talking about where they are going and what will happen now.

“A lot of people are uprooting their families,” he said. “They are talking about packing, where they are going and how they are going to sell their house.”


 

Minor arrived in 1991 to be a part of “A New Kind of Car Company,” but will leave Dec. 7 in search of a new kind of job.

“We moved here thinking we would could retire from this plant,” he said. “We’ve been here 20 years working together and now everyone is going their separate ways.”

Officially GM is “idling” the plant, leaving open the option to bring in a new product in the future. But the plant lost out on the chance to build GM’s latest small car to the Orion Township, Mich., facility in June.

Jan McKeel, executive director of the South Central Tennessee Workforce Alliance, said the region will lose about 4,000 automotive-related jobs Wednesday when the plant is idled, and it’s likely more jobs will be shed in coming months at businesses that relied on the patronage of GM workers.

   
 

McKeel said she expects the county will begin seeing the full effect of the plant’s idling by February. Maury County’s unemployment rate already is about 12 percent — more than a percentage point higher than the state average.

“It’s going to be tough numbers for us to absorb in light of everything else that is going on,” McKeel said. “I am worried about what our unemployment will hit.”

ONE HOUSE NOT FOR SALE

Mike Herron, GM unit chairman for the UAW Local 1853, said he remains optimistic about the plant’s future.

“People always say ‘We watch your house. If it goes up for sale, then we know we can leave town,’” he said.

Herron said the engine plant will remain open, producing about 350,000-400,000 units next year. The Ecotech inline 4-cylinder is used in several GM vehicles and is in high demand because it is one of the company’s most fuel-efficient offerings.

 
 

Herron said there’s always hope GM will bring a new product to the state-of-the-art plant. He said some workers will remain in Tennessee in hopes that the factory will reopen.

“We can continue to make it as long as there’s a light at the end of the tunnel that’s not a train,” he said.

But time is an important factor. Herron said he thinks the window to get something into the plant is closing — the longer it drags on, the tighter the pinch for families that remain behind. Herron said workers’ benefits will eventually run out. Workers with more seniority will receive payments for longer.

“If something doesn’t happen here and they don’t nail something down in a year to 18 months, I think that would be problematic big-time,” he said.

Charlie Platt, who moved to Spring Hill in 1993 from New Jersey, said Tennessee is home for him and his four children — two of whom are in college and two who are in Maury County schools.

Platt said he’s optimistic that the plant won’t sit empty, but he knows there are no guarantees.

“It’s a flip of the coin,” he said.

Anxiety over the plant’s future extends beyond the workers.

Leeanna Case, a junior at Columbia Academy, said her father chose to retire rather than move his family. She said she isn’t worried, but she knows the loss of income will mean a change in lifestyle.

“It feels like GM doesn’t have any emotions about the families,” she said.

Some employees are making the most out of the situation, finding other work in the area or even opening their own businesses.

Philip Barmer jokes that he is the only GM employee who traveled north to get to the Spring Hill plant. He transferred from a factory in Meridian, Miss., that he said made 20,000 starters a day.

Nineteen years ago, he started working at the Spring Hill plant, and he said a lot of memories have been made along the way.

“There is a lot of sadness,” Barmer said. “This is part of who you are, and all of a sudden, you are having to say goodbye to all these people you worked with for so many years. They were just like family.”

But Barmer isn’t content to sit at home when he is on layoff. He is planning to start a business that he hopes will one day help teach Maury County residents everyday cooking skills.

He is getting help through entrepreneurial workshops held at Maury County’s career center.

TOUGH DECISIONS

Whether they are going or staying, the closing is sending ripples throughout the community.

Melissa Alexander, who works for Hewlitt-Packard servicing the facility’s computers, is one of the lucky ones. She said she has a job until at least April.

“But that could change,” she admitted.

Some have suggested finding a new tenant for the plant, but GM has not publicly commented on any potential sale. During a recent city election, candidates said finding someone to bring in a business to the facility should be a top priority.

The uncertainty and an ill-fated attempt by Roger Penske to buy the Saturn brand have given birth to rumors about who might find a use for such a large facility.

Herron said he has heard all types of rumors surrounding the plant — some more believable than others.

“Some team members came in (last week) and said they had heard Disney bought it. I said ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’ That’s a good one,” Herron said.

According to UAW Local 1853 chairman’s report, 728 workers have applied to move to the Lansing Delta Township facility in Lansing, Mich. The facility will produce the Traverse once production ends in Spring Hill.

SATURN RISING

The Spring Hill plant began producing the Traverse in 2008, after giving birth to the Saturn brand and building some of its vehicles for 18 years.

Saturn Corp. began as GM’s attempt to stave off the encroachment of Japanese imports into the small car and youth market. It was billed as a different kind of company using techniques familiar to the Asian system of manufacturing. Workers were required to give up their GM seniority to participate in a plant where they were promised more input and flexibility. GM said the company was being built for the next 100 years.

The Spring Hill facility began producing cars under the Saturn brand in 1990. For 11 years it produced the S-series Saturn. In 2001, it began building the compact SUV called the Vue. Following a $600 million retooling in 2007, the plant ended its ties with Saturn and began building the Chevrolet Traverse SUV in 2008.

Minor said he was shocked when the announcement was made in June to indefinitely idle the plant because of the money GM had spent updating the plant.

“It was unbelievable they were going to do something like this,” he said. “The 100-year car company — it only lasted 20 years.”

Herron, who said he has supported GM all his life, can’t help but feel the automaker did not get behind the Saturn experiment. He said the Spring Hill plant had one of the best workforces in GM, winning awards for its labor, but couldn’t make up for a lack of new product.

While some have sought to downplay the impact of the plant’s closing, Herron believes that as the new year progresses, people will begin to see what an important part it has played in the economic stability of Maury County and the region.

“About 800 people are going to take a heck of a tremendous hit, but in this area people are going to find out just how important the GM plant is to this economy,” he said.

GM came to Maury County when it was suffering from the closure of the area’s chemical plants when unemployment was rampant and the economic outlook was bleak. As the holidays approach, some workers ready to move, others prepare for a new career and some will wait, hoping the season brings another miracle.

While about 25 percent of the facility will remain operational, thousands will face an uncertain new year.

Story created Nov 25, 2009 – 11:49:54 EST.

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