Old Saturn Plant Could Get a Second Chance

Nick Bunkley and Bill Vlasic|The New York Times

When General Motors stopped building cars here in Spring Hill, TN two years ago, as the auto industry hit rock bottom and tens of thousands of assembly-line jobs evaporated nationwide, Chad Poynor packed up and moved to Michigan to keep working at another plant.

Mr. Poynor said he made the nine-hour drive back to Tennessee to see his wife and three children 24 times in the first year alone. “I’d go back tomorrow if I could,” Mr. Poynor said Wednesday after finishing his overnight shift in Lansing, Mich.

He and hundreds of other autoworkers may get that chance.

Gm Building
Getty Images

In a glimmer of light in a mostly downbeat economy, G.M. and the United Automobile Workers union have agreed to give the plant here a second chance as part of a tentative new labor contract. It is highly unusual for an automaker to bring jobs back to a factory all but left for dead, and several G.M. plants, including Spring Hill, will be adding work that had been headed to Mexico.

“I actually have a smile on my face today,” Mike O’Rourke, the president of U.A.W. Local 1853 in Spring Hill, said after learning the details of the contract. “It was very much gloom and doom. I lost all my hair and gained 50 pounds.”

The resurrection of Spring Hill would be another milestone in the fortunes of the domestic auto industry and, in particular, G.M.’s comeback from its government bailout and bankruptcy in 2009. The promise in the new contract of 6,400 jobs over the next four years, including 1,700 here, is being seen as a vote of confidence that autoworkers in the United States, even unionized ones, can compete with lower-wage nations.

Some of the jobs here will go to current G.M. workers at full wages of $28 an hour, but many of the workers will be hired on G.M.’s second-tier pay scale, which would start around $15 an hour in the new contract.

“We’re bringing back a lot of work that left this country,” the U.A.W.’s president, Bob King, said of the contract, which is subject to ratification by G.M.’s 48,500 workers in the United States.

Perhaps nothing better symbolizes the ragged journey of Detroit’s Big Three in recent decades than the Spring Hill plant, which was built in the 1980s as the launching pad for G.M.’s highly promoted Saturn division.

In the 1990s, thousands of Saturn owners traveled here for “homecoming” parties to celebrate their bond with the vehicles and the workers who made them. The plant became known to TV viewers after G.M. hired the advertising agency famous for creating President Ronald Reagan’s upbeat “Morning in America” re-election ads. Commercials featured the plant and its workers with the slogan, “A different kind of company, a different kind of car.”

But the Saturn brand never lived up to its promise and is now a casualty of G.M.’s bankruptcy. The only work being done at the plant here, 30 miles south of Nashville, is a much smaller operation making engines. James L. Bailey, the mayor of Maury County, which includes Spring Hill, described the past two years as “a time of trauma.”

Unemployment in the county rose as high as 17 percent after the plant closed; the rate is now about 13 percent. In nearby Columbia, where many G.M. workers lived, downtown storefronts emptied and homes went into foreclosure. The Santa Fe Cattle Company, a steakhouse with a U.A.W. flag in its foyer, closed, and this year’s graduating high school class lost 85 students after the plant shut down.

“They bought a lot of things, they did a lot of things,” Mr. Bailey, who works out of a cramped, century-old courthouse in Columbia’s town square, said of G.M. workers. “When they went away, it affected a lot of businesses here.”

G.M. declined to publicly comment on the Spring Hill decision. The company has avoided discussing specific terms of the agreement until it is approved by members.

People with knowledge of the negotiations said that union leaders pressed hard in the final stages of the talks for Spring Hill to be reopened. Michael Robinet, an analyst with the research firm IHS Automotive, said the company saw an opportunity to make inroads with the U.A.W. while bringing back a facility at a relatively low cost.

“The Tier 2 workers definitely changed the economics of the plant,” he said. “It’s definitely a win for the union. I can’t recall the last time a plant of this size was brought back after it was closed.”

How quickly workers may be able to return to Spring Hill is not known, and for some the situation is complicated by relocation agreements they signed requiring them to spend a certain length of time at another plant. Union officials said that about 600 jobs would be created by the end of next year, followed by 1,100 more in 2013. G.M. said it planned to invest $419 million in the plant so that it could build two new midsize vehicles.

The sense of anticipation in Spring Hill, whose population increased twentyfold in the two decades after G.M. began making Saturns amid rolling farmland near a Civil War battleground, was palpable this week.

“I can see the light at the end of the tunnel now,” said Todd Horton, a G.M. worker who stayed after being laid off in the hopes of getting called back. Mr. Horton, a married father of two, turned down a transfer offer two weeks ago, even though supplemental unemployment benefits from the company were about to run out and there had been no word that the plant would reopen.

“My hope is just that the economy can sustain it and they can follow through with the plans,” said Mr. Horton, whose final responsibility in the plant’s training department was helping his coworkers move elsewhere.

Many of them are in Lansing, Mich., having followed production of the last vehicle built in Spring Hill, the Chevrolet Traverse Crossover. Glenn Tucker, who is a little more than a year away from being able to retire from G.M. with full benefits, is waiting to learn how quickly he can come back. His wife, Danean, stayed in Tennessee to keep her job managing a restaurant and so that their son could graduate from high school.

“There was no hope for most of us that it would ever reopen,” Mrs. Tucker said.

Said Mr. O’Rourke, the local union official, “All you got to do is drive around any big city — Detroit, Milwaukee, Chicago — and you can see a lot of empty factories that have never reopened.”

Nick Bunkley reported from Spring Hill, Tenn., and Bill Vlasic from Detroit.

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