29 May 2012

GM Transplants in Lansing Adjust

Story first appeared in The Detroit News.

A General Motors worker drives 600 miles so he can mow the lawn.

He's only half-kidding. Every other weekend, he and his roommate pack the car and drive straight to Tennessee at the end of their graveyard shift at General Motors Co.'s Lansing Delta Township assembly plant. They share the driving so the other can nap.

They're home for about a day and a half before it's back to Michigan and back to work.

These are the "transplants" — GM workers represented by the United Auto Workers union who headed north two years ago when the Detroit carmaker shut down part of its Spring Hill, Tenn., operation and shifted production of the Chevrolet Traverse to the Delta plant, adding a third shift of about 1,000 workers in the process.

They are among the 560 General Motors employees in Lansing who have spent the past two years living, in essence, double lives: full-time worker at the Lansing Delta Township assembly plant, part-time family member — in person, at least — in Tennessee.

For some of them, the choice to take the carmaker up on a three-year transfer wasn't much of a choice at all: anything to stay employed. Many have worked for GM for decades and are among the set of UAW-represented workers whose pay averages about $29 per hour. Add in benefits and the relocation package GM offered them — $30,000 and the ability to retain their seniority toward their pensions — and transferring for many appeared to be the best decision.

But it also has meant a radical departure from their daily lives, geographically and figuratively, as they adapt to communicating with their families via cellphone or computer, paying rent along with their mortgages on houses they own in Tennessee and missing family birthdays and other milestone events.

GM plans to reopen the manufacturing plant in Spring Hill, initially to make the Chevrolet Equinox small crossover later this year. A company labor executive last fall said the idled plant could see an initial infusion of $62 million and 685 workers. Spring Hill also could land new midsize vehicles for the 2015 model year, which would boost production there by as many as 1,200 jobs and $183 million.

They hear rumblings now, the Tennessee workers, that the UAW and GM are trying to work out a deal to let some Spring Hill transfers, who are spread out in factories nationwide, return home before their three-year terms end. They don't know if it's true. The company and the union are silent on the question. Some local workers say they could be packed to leave in 20 minutes if it happens.

They don't have anything against Lansing. But, they figure, why should they tie up a job in a place that doesn't belong to them when there are plenty of Michiganians who would line up at the mere thought of a "now hiring" sign and spend their paychecks here?

The Traverse started rolling off the Lansing Delta Township assembly line as part of GM's recovery plan after its quick trip through bankruptcy in 2009 to consolidate its operations and improve efficiency. Some of that plan involved shutting down and selling off brands — it jettisoned the Pontiac, Saturn, Hummer and Saab nameplates — closing plants and turning the remaining facilities into three-shift operations running basically around the clock.

Now, nearly six years after the Delta plant opened in late 2006, 3,123 hourly and 257 salaried workers have jobs at the facility, boosted partly by a third shift added in 2010 when the Traverse went into full production locally.

Most of the 560 Spring Hill workers accepted $30,000 relocation agreements that require them to work three years in Lansing before they would be eligible to transfer elsewhere. They aren't guaranteed jobs in Spring Hill. Twenty-five are here on $4,800 basic relocation deals that grant them contractual recall rights, or top preference, to return to Tennessee as jobs arise.

A Lansing-based GM spokeswoman, said she doesn't expect plans to re-open the Tennessee factory to have an immediate impact on Delta Township production.

Spring Hill, Tenn., is a suburban city of 29,000 about 40 miles southwest of Nashville. Its website heralds its "blend of commerce, history and country living." For awhile, its name was synonymous with Saturn, as the small city's assembly plant was for a time the only place in the country where the General Motors Co. brand was built. Locals know State Route 396, on which the plant is found, as Saturn Parkway.

Saturn was supposed to be "a different kind of car company," and for awhile it was. Spring Hill landed the facility in 1985, and the first vehicle came off the line five years later. It was intended to be GM's answer to small-car competition from foreign automakers. The chairman of United Auto Workers Local 1853 in Spring Hill, said people came from 45 states and 144 different plants to work at Saturn before the company ended the division in 2010.

To understand the impact GM has had on the Middle Tennessee community, it's important to understand two distinct trends. Spring Hill in the last decade experienced what can only fairly be called a population explosion. In 2000, the number of people who lived there numbered only 7,715. That figure soared 276 percent by the 2010 Census. It was so rapid, in fact, that in January of that year, Little Rock, Ark.-based data production firm Gadberry Group ranked Spring Hill as one of the nation's fastest-growing cities in 2009. The reason? General Motors.

And in that same decade, which saw GM executives idle production there in 2009 amid corporate-wide restructuring and bankruptcy proceedings, unemployment in Maury County quadrupled — from 3.6 percent in 2000 to 14.1 percent in 2010, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics seasonally unadjusted data.

While that can't entirely be attributed to idling the plant — it happened in the midst of the nation's most devastating economic downturn since the 1930s — it does offer some insight into how influential the auto industry became there.

Spring Hill Manufacturing never truly shut down. About 1,000 people remained on the job, mostly those with the highest seniority. At its lowest point, about 600 people worked there. The plant didn't manufacture any vehicles, but instead focused on engines, steel stamping operations and injection molding.

The factory is positioned on more than 2,000 acres on what once was agrarian land. To this day, it's still a working farm. The region served as a Civil War battleground, first in the Battle of Spring Hill in November 1864 and, a day later, in the Battle of Franklin. Re-enactors occasionally set up near the plant.

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