April 20, 2014

G.M. Plans to Reopen Former Saturn Plant in Spring Hill, Tenn.

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.

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.

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

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=c24f7edbe7b1b4a68c32f4f7fdb0bed1

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