On Nov. 26, General Motors delivered life-altering news to thousands of workers on its factory floors.
It said it would indefinitely idle four factories in the United States and one in Canada by the end of 2019. At risk were some 2,800 “active” hourly jobs in the United States. At the moment, about 500 of those workers are without jobs, with two of the plants still operating to some extent.
Two of the targeted plants were Warren Transmission in suburban Detroit and Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly, where Dnitra Landon and Robert VanOrden worked. Both said they were blindsided by the news.
“It came as a lightning bolt,” said VanOrden.
VanOrden, 52, a contract worker who maintained the plant’s heating and cooling system for seven years, was first told he might get to stick around after GM idles the assembly line.
“GM wouldn’t let the pipes freeze,” he said. But that hope was crushed on Feb. 28, when he was laid off.
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“I was devastated,” said VanOrden. “I sat on my porch for hours, pondering life and what I would do. I’m a smart guy and I don’t drink or do drugs. So I focused and said, ‘Here I am, at my age, and I’ll have to rebuild myself from ground zero.’ “
By the numbers
GM, which has been blasted by politicians and the UAW, has been insistent that it’s trying to soften the blow for workers. CEO Mary Barra said GM has a job for everyone affected by the closures. But the jobs are at other plants, in some cases, across the country. Suppliers, such as VanOrden’s employer, and the communities are affected as well.
Still, GM said it is working hard to get the nearly 1,500 workers who will remain laid off back on the payroll.
Landon landed on her feet with a fast transfer to Flint Assembly plant, but she said many others she worked with remain laid off and are struggling. Some can’t relocate because of family or other circumstances, she said.
By the end of April, GM had transferred about 1,305 of the nearly 2,800 affected to jobs at its other U.S. plants, said company spokesman Dan Flores. Here is the breakdown:
- 593 workers transferred from Detroit-Hamtramck after Chevrolet Volt and Buick LaCrosse production ceased.
- 670 from Lordstown Assembly in Ohio.
- 28 from Warren Transmission.
- 14 from Baltimore Operations.
Lordstown is idled, but Detroit Hamtramck will run until January and employs 700 hourly workers who continue to build the Chevrolet Impala and Cadillac CT6 sedans.
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Warren Transmission will idle in early August and Baltimore shuts down this week, said Flores.
The transferred employees have gone to:
- Flint Assembly in Flint
- Spring Hill Assembly in Tennessee
- Toledo Transmission plant
- Bedford Casting Operations in Indiana
- Fort Wayne Assembly in Indiana
- Wentzville Assembly in Missouri
- Tonawanda Engine plant in New York
That leaves 508 U.S. hourly employees presently laid off awaiting transfers. That’s because of the 1,473 affected workers who have not been transferred to another job, 700 are still working at Detroit Hamtramck and 265 are still working at Warren Transmission. When those plants idle, those workers will have opportunities to transfer to other GM plants, said Flores, who confirmed the Free Press math as accurate but said GM is not tracking the numbers the same way.
“There are employees that are still in the process of being placed,” Flores said in an email to the Free Press. “We will have opportunities at other locations as we work our way through 2019, including at Bowling Green, Kentucky, and Arlington, Texas, as they prepare for launches.”
GM has been transferring Lordstown skilled trades workers to Arlington “for a while,” said GM spokeswoman Kim Carpenter. It will start offering production workers transfers to Arlington later this year, she said. The transfer offers to Bowling Green will begin in the late second quarter or early third quarter, she said.
In Arlington, GM builds Cadillac, GMC and Chevrolet full-size SUVs. It builds the Chevrolet Corvette and Corvette engines in Bowling Green. It recently said it will build the next generation mid-engine Corvette at Bowling Green Assembly and add some 400 jobs.
GM has also said it will spend $300 million to build a new electric car at its Orion Assembly Plant north of Detroit and add about 400 jobs there. GM builds the electric Chevrolet Bolt, autonomous vehicles for GM’s Cruise unit, and the Chevy Sonic compact car at Orion. Flores said GM is not disclosing the specific timing for those jobs, but said in an email that it’s unlikely to happen this year.
Some can’t move
Many of those on the waiting list for transfers are from Lordstown, said David Green, president of UAW Local 1112 there.
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“GM sent out 490 involuntary requests for the Wentzville, Missouri, plant and got about 150 people from Lordstown to accept jobs there,” said Green. “People don’t want to move. They’re taking care of special needs kids or elderly parents.”
GM builds the Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon midsize trucks and Chevy Express and GMC Savana full-size vans at Wentzville Assembly. Flores confirmed that 123 Lordstown hourly employees accepted jobs at Wentzville in late April.
Last week, GM leaders met with the governor of Missouri along with state and local leaders to discuss a possible $1 billion expansion of the company’s truck and van plant in Wentzville.
If laid-off workers decline the involuntary transfer request, they lose their health care and other benefits, as well as any ability to transfer to any other GM plant, said Green. They could return to a job at Lordstown if the plant is given a new product, but “If Lordstown is not reallocated, they have no job,” he said.
“The parts suppliers and their members have nowhere to go,” Green noted. “GM is only focusing on the UAW members because that’s all they have a responsibility for. But those suppliers are affected as well, and those used to be GM jobs.”
In Hamtramck, City Manager Kathy Angerer said that a closure of the plant, in addition to jobs lost, would mean more than $800,000 lost to the annual city budget, $115,000 gone from the School Aid Fund and “untold amounts” lost from the community’s businesses.
The UAW has praised GM’s investments, but vows to leave “no stone unturned” to keep the idled plants running.
Some workers are lucky. Landon, 56, lost her job at Detroit-Hamtramck on Feb. 21. She worried about her future, but was fortunate to quickly get a transfer to Flint Assembly on March 18.
“My situation is different and worked out great for me. I love it,” said Landon, who bought a lake house near Grand Blanc and rents out her former house near Detroit.
But Landon sympathized with others awaiting transfers, “It’s really ridiculous to have to put everyone through this, have people move away from their families, quit and get other stable jobs now,” she said.
Indeed, VanOrden started a new job maintaining the heating and cooling system and plumbing at GM’s Technical Center in Warren on April 27. But the two months he spent off of work were “very tough,” he said.
“It virtually put me on the front of foreclosure of my house,” said VanOrden.
To make ends meet, VanOrden drove for ride-hailing company Lyft for a couple of weeks after losing his job at Detroit-Hamtramck. He also did some handyman and plumbing jobs and installed a commercial kitchen for a church in suburban Detroit. VanOrden even turned his hobby of restoring used cars into selling them for a profit. Finally, he became a booking agent for two local bands.
“I’m only two months behind on my mortgage, so I’m not in foreclosure, but the bank is not impressed,” said VanOrden. “I feel I’ll survive now and so it’s a huge relief and I have hope.”
His optimism might be justified. On April 30, GM CFO Dhivya Suryadevara told reporters the company does not have any additional cuts planned in the near term.
More job cuts
But in a filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission that same day, GM left open the possibility that it could cut more in the future, saying: “We may execute additional initiatives in the future, if necessary, to streamline manufacturing capacity and reduce other costs to improve the utilization of remaining facilities.”
GM vehemently disagrees, but one economist says to bet on it.
“It is highly likely that the job cuts that GM outlined in the restructuring announcements of a few months ago will only be the beginning, even though at the time they were announced GM genuinely believed that they would be all that would be necessary,” said market economist Jon Gabrielsen, who tracks industry trends to advise automotive clients.
Gabrielsen said GM is losing total market share faster than it is restructuring. GM reported its global market share through March was 10.6%, down from 11.4% a year before. In the United States, it fell to 16.1% from 17% a year earlier.
“It is literally cutting to what it needed at the market share when it began planning, and by now, and over the next couple of years, it will have lost so much more market share, necessitating even more restructuring cutting within a year or two from now,” Gabrielsen asserted.
GM sees growth
CFO Suryadevara said part of GM’s first-quarter drop in market share is because of its decision to reduce the number of sedans it offers. Also, GM is still ramping up production and rolling out various models of its 2019 newly designed Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra pickups.
“As we roll out other cab variants, the heavy duty models and diesel trucks, we’re going to see more share gains,” said Suryadevara.
Plus the hourly workers GM is transferring are going to plants that build hot-selling products, ensuring job security.
“The folks that have been placed have been placed into operations that build trucks, SUVs and crossovers or provide components to trucks, SUVs and crossover plants,” said Flores. “These are the growth parts of the business.”
Even so, VanOrden, who lives in the Detroit suburb of Livonia, is taking no chances.
His father worked at Ford Motor Co. as a graphic illustrator and clay model maker in research and engineering, VanOrden said. So VanOrden has applied at Ford’s transmission plant in Livonia.
“There is a loyalty. I was raised in Ford’s cars and that’s the type of engineering I understand and that’s the kind of cars I buy,” said VanOrden. “I buy some Chevys, but I understand the engineering concepts of Ford. I’m the rebel because I work at GM.”
Contact Jamie L. LaReau: 313-222-2149 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @jlareauan. Read more on General Motors and sign up for our autos newsletter.