Chiefs say why GM should stay

Wednesday, June 10, 2009
Tribune photo by Clint Confehr Representing Marshall County, state Sen. Bill Ketron, left, confers with leaders concerned about GM's plant in Spring Hill.

COLUMBIA - Brainstorming by state and regional officials on Friday - to promote the Spring Hill auto assembly plant as General Motors' best route to recovery - generated ideas and cautious optimism.

State Sen. Bill Ketron is to get a list of 700 suppliers who should write letters of commitment so GM executives will be able to see that two thirds of the suppliers for the Spring Hill plant are local, loyal and capable, the Murfreesboro Republican said.

Ketron, who represents Marshall County, indicated that the Spring Hill plant has a higher percentage of suppliers nearby than GM factories in the rustbelt.

Another competitive edge that Gov. Phil Bredesen and other officials should explain to GM is health care for employees, according to Columbia City Councilwoman Debbie Matthews.

"We have a county-owned hospital," Matthews said, noting that health care costs are not just another national political issue, but also an economic consideration for businessmen. "It may be a benefit for us."

"That," said Guy Derryberry, the AFL-CIO-appointed labor representative to the Local Work Force Investment Area Board, "is the kind of creativity that will get you off the bubble."

"Cost synergies" like that could make Maury County more economical for GM, Derryberry said in an interview after the brainstorming session organized by Maury County Mayor Jim Bailey.

Preventive health care for workers is like preventive maintenance for a car, Derryberry said. Both save money.

Still, the prospect of an extended standby period, if not closure or sale of the Spring Hill plant, remains a regional fear that's still not defined with accuracy. As a result, Lewisburg's experience with ICP's closure in 2001, and Labor Department statistics were used to give perspective to the discussion at the state's Career Center on U.S. Highway 31 through Columbia.

Without statistics showing where GM plant workers live, Jan McKeel, executive director of the South Central Tennessee Workforce Alliance, could only give an approximation of the plant's impact on Maury and surrounding counties.

McKeel's best information was about the county of residence for people who work within a one-mile radius of the GM plant, she said. It does not mean they work for GM. One might assume the largest part of that group of people would work for GM, but many probably work at jobs affected by the plant's success.

Maury County has the highest percentage of such workers - 43.5 percent, McKeel said. The second highest is Williamson County at 22 percent.

Marshall County has the third highest percentage of residents commuting to jobs within that circle around the GM plant, she said. Those 558 Marshall County residents who have jobs in that area of Spring Hill comprise about eight percent of the workforce there.

"My guess is that the bulk of them are at GM," McKeel said, again qualifying the statistic as more than just jobs at GM.

Nearly 1,500 Williamson County residents work at or near the plant, she said. Just over 3,000 people work in that area defined by a one-mile radius around the plant.

Meanwhile, GM has 2,500 workers at the Spring Hill assembly plant who are worried that it might not resume production.

"There will be a lot of behind the scenes decisions," Deputy State Labor Commissioner Robert C. Henningsen said. "I don't know GM's long-term plan, but the workers here are good."

Henningsen knows the situation is emotional since he was among the executives with ICP when they sought to acquire the plant in Lewisburg to continue production nearly eight years ago.

"We tried, as a management group, to buy the company," he said of the attempt to keep American plants open when a conglomerate including United Technologies, Otis Elevator, Pratt & Whitney and Carrier bought ICP.

Henningsen left his senior vice president's position with ICP before the plant was closed in Lewisburg where 2,200 jobs were lost. Marshall County residents held less than 900 of them.

ICP had other plants in Florida, Texas, Quebec, Mexico and Spain, Henningsen said.

With that experience, he spoke of how the Labor Department will be able to help GM workers who are displaced. It includes on-line applications for assistance.

"But we have to stay positive about keeping it open," Henningsen said, noting the large number of auto factory employees in Middle Tennessee are another reason for the plant to be taken off standby status.

"I can't speak for the governor," Henningsen said, "but I think he will" visit Spring Hill because of the GM plat's situation.

Another factor for GM is the state Career Centers that screen applicants for jobs at such factories.

"It's a valuable asset," Henningsen said of the state service for employers.

Workforce Board member Rick Alexander recalled similar meetings before ICP closed.

Then, "Nobody won," Alexander said, listing: "the state, ICP, Lewisburg and the union" as losers.

Now, such participants need to work together so losers aren't part of the picture next time, he said.

Bailey said he would announce another such meeting to review what's been done and plan more steps.

There was recurring encouragement for the officials to remain up beat and the attitude was adopted by many of those attending the 90-minute meeting that Bailey likened to a pep rally.

"We should hope for the best and prepare for the worst," Marshall County Mayor Joe Boyd Liggett said. "The good thing is that everybody realizes the positive attitude has to be maintained."

Lewisburg Councilman Ronald McRady attended with Liggett and noted a "unified effort" to keep the GM plat in Spring Hill operating.

"We should get the local clubs and organizations ... to get grass roots organizations to be positive," McRady said.

Bailey, the Maury County mayor, said he's "optimistic that we were given a plumb" when GM announced that the Spring Hill plant would be in competition with a plant in Orion, Wis., and one in Janesville, Ohio.

Ketron reflected on a comparison of notes with state Rep. Ty Cobb of Columbia.

"The Janesville plant has been closed for sometime," Ketron said. "But it's basically gutted.

"I think they threw that in the mix to up the ante" to create more incentives from the two states, the senator said.

GM announced last week that Spring Hill is on standby status now so it could compete with two other plants for the production of a compact car that's produced now for drivers in China and Europe.

Since the Janesville plant is gutted, the competition is really between Spring Hill and Orion, Wis., Cobb said.

Furthermore, he said, "The commitment of the UAW local here has created the best work contract... cutting out overtime and working straight time..."

Bailey said, "We're looking to our state and federal government for leadership and we need to make it public."

Meanwhile, area residents will feel stress, according to several social workers who attended the meeting.

While there's domestic violence everywhere," Traci Cook of Hope house said, increased stress tends to increase the level of violence. A shove, or push during a dispute might be a punch instead.

A woman from Centerstone said layoffs affect everyone.

With nearly two dozen people in the room, including Lewisburg Industrial Development Director Terry Wallace present, Bailey encouraged all the officials to be prepared for the chaos that will be created in he lives of area residents.

The union representative on the workforce council sought to dispel misinformation among some people who apparently believe there was an ulterior motive and that Spring Hill "is getting the shaft.

Derryberry said GM is making a business decision.

"It's restructuring and capacity," he said of two big issues.

Moving the Traverse production elsewhere was addressing production plant capacity, Derryberry said.

The AFL-CIO representative to the state panel said he believes that GM has a business plan with good rational on why it will put certain vehicles into production at certain plants.

"The plant that doesn't get the small car would get a car later," he said. "I'm optimistic that they know what they're doing.

"Some folks believe they [GM management] doesn't know what they're doing," Derryberry said. "I'm optimistic that that plat will build something."

There's "no question" in his mind that GM is considering fuel efficiency, and that may include the construction of a hybrid or an electric car, he said.

If, when and where such a car is produced are questions that may come sooner than later, just like GM's bankruptcy case.

"We know a few things," McKeel told the group. "The rest is speculation.

"But we know that Spring Hill is part of the new GM," she said. Spring Hill is in "the good asset" part of the car company.

Furthermore, the south central workforce board executive said, "It appears that things are moving quickly.

"It's almost as if the bankruptcy was done before it was filed," McKeel said.

Current and future funding for plant workers during the standby period were also discussed at the meeting. Support at more than two thirds of wages and up to more than 90 percent were discussed. Resources for that could last a year and then an adjustment might be made for another 12 months.