UAW wants Spring Hill plant restart included in GM contract

UAW wants Spring Hill plant restart included in GM contract

Written by
G. Chambers Williams III | The Tennessean

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The Spring Hill plant still produces auto engines. The UAW hopes a new contract would include a full restart of the assembly plant. / Jae S. Lee / File / The Tennessean
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Union officials hope a new national contract being negotiated between General Motors and the United Auto Workers — due by Sept. 14 — could include a restart of the idled auto assembly line at the company’s Spring Hill plant.
There’s no deal yet, though, and recent comments by a top GM executive suggest that the Middle Tennessee plant might not be getting a new vehicle to build anytime soon.
“We are hopeful that Spring Hill will get a new product under the contract, and there are multiple options in the negotiations,” said Gary Casteel, director of UAW District 8, which covers most of the Southeast, including Tennessee.
“The union’s position, which we announced before the start of negotiations, was that we would be vigorously pursuing a product for Spring Hill,” Casteel said. “But it’s still a long way from that happening.”
In a session with analysts last week, Diana Tremblay, GM’s global chief manufacturing officer, specifically referred to Spring Hill, saying that despite its near-ready status, the plant is not yet needed.
“We look at (manufacturing capacity) on a continual basis,” she said. “…We have our Spring Hill facility, still sitting there, that is very flexible. If we should find that we would be short of something, we can quickly get that plant started up. Right now, we don’t see any need to do that.”
Casteel, speaking from the UAW District 8 headquarters in Lebanon, Tenn., said the union understands that reopening shuttered vehicle assembly lines such as those in Spring Hill and Janesville, Wis., will depend on whether GM can make a business case for it, and that it’s not likely the automaker would do so just to appease the union.
Nevertheless, speculation is building that a new-vehicle announcement is near.
Union officials thought they had a deal for a new vehicle at Spring Hill before contract negotiations opened July 27. But they later found out that those plans had been put on hold, waiting for the two sides to hash out terms of a new three-year labor deal. A vehicle for Spring Hill could be a key bargaining chip, they said.
Although the current contract expires Sept. 14, it could be kept in place beyond that date if a new deal has not yet been worked out, GM spokeswoman Kim Carpenter said Thursday. “In the past, the two sides have agreed to extend the contract while they continue to bargain.”
As to whether the contract might include provisions for a new vehicle for Spring Hill, Carpenter said only that: “We review our manufacturing operations constantly to make sure they are competitive and that we have the capacity to meet market demand.”
Opinions differ
But opinions differ on what level the rate of U.S. auto sales must reach before GM would really need to add manufacturing capacity, he said. One GM official was quoted in recent media reports that annual U.S. new-vehicle sales would need to return to the 16 million level, up from this year’s expected 13 million, before the automaker would have to increase capacity.
Union officials say that’s not necessarily the case, though, and that GM might not even have to increase capacity to justify reopening Spring Hill. Production could be shifted among different plants without raising capacity or adversely affecting employment at any particular plant, they suggested.GM closed more than a dozen plants in conjunction with its bankruptcy reorganization in 2009, including the Janesville facility and the vehicle assembly line in Spring Hill.
Spring Hill had been retooled and upgraded in 2007 – at a cost of $750 million — for production of the then-new Chevrolet Traverse crossover utility vehicle, and the first of the new vehicles began rolling out of the plant in mid-2008.
But in the wake of the GM bankruptcy and federal bailout of the company, assembly of that vehicle was moved to Lansing, Mich., at the end of 2009. That put about 2,000 of the UAW’s Tennessee members out of work.
‘Standby’ status
Still, GM said that the Spring Hill and Janesville plants were being put on “standby” instead of being closed permanently, with the idea that their vehicle assembly lines could be brought back on line when auto sales increased enough to require the automaker to add capacity.
Meanwhile, GM has kept open other parts of the Spring Hill facility, including body-stamping operations and four-cylinder engine production. More than 1,000 workers are still employed there.
The big plum, though, would be a new vehicle to produce on the idled assembly line, which could bring back 2,000 workers or more. Many of those laid off when the Traverse was moved to Michigan have since taken other GM jobs elsewhere. But there is an ample supply of workers ready to come back to work at Spring Hill if the plant gets a new vehicle, UAW officials have said.
There was rampant speculation in July that GM would choose Spring Hill as the production facility for a new small Cadillac sedan coming to market for 2013. But the automaker said its plan had always been for that vehicle to be built in Lansing, and that was reaffirmed last month.

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