Hundreds of GM workers could return to home plants

Melissa Burden
The Detroit News

It’s been six years since hundreds of General Motors Co. hourly workers scattered to faraway plants during the economic downturn and after GM’s bankruptcy. They left their home plants and families behind to keep a paycheck in uncertain times.

Now, with a special “one-time enhanced language” in the tentative agreement between GM and the United Auto Workers, it looks like some will be able to return home if the contract is approved.

Ernest and Teresa Gonzales have been separated for six years. Ernest, 55, works at GM’s Fairfax Assembly Plant in Kansas City, Kansas, 10 hours away from wife Teresa, 52, and their family who live near the Spring Hill Assembly Plant in Tennessee where Ernest once worked.

Some families who tried to maintain two residences are broke, have suffered strained relationships and are just plain lonely. Like the Gonzaleses, they have missed birthdays, anniversaries and being together when one is ill. Ernest will miss Teresa’s birthday next week, and she will not be there when he has surgery.

“We’re ready for the change, and I’m ready for him to build his health back up and (be home),” she said. “It’s been a painful and astonishingly long time.”

GM workers such as Ernest Gonzales, Monica Nixon, William Fraser and Duane Gonyea are encouraged by the possibility of returning to Spring Hill, which opened in 1990 as a Saturn plant.

Many Spring Hill workers, displaced when the assembly plant was idled in 2009, still own homes in the area. The plant laid off some 2,000 workers at the time and hundreds took jobs at other factories.

The deal that could reunite workers with their families relies upon ratification by GM’s 52,600 hourly UAW members. Voting on the contract is expected to be wrapped up late Friday, and the UAW is expected to release official results this weekend.

“There are a number of workers during the many years, the last decade at GM, that had to move plants,” UAW Vice President Cindy Estrada, who leads the GM department, said in a news conference last week in Detroit. “And this agreement also includes that a lot of them are going to be able to get back home.”

The union had been in discussions with the automaker for at least a year about helping workers relocate, even after GM and the union said all workers with recall rights to transfer back to Spring Hill had done so. The special agreement would apply only to production employees who meet certain transfer conditions spelled out in the contract. Offers would be based on seniority, and workers could transfer only if there are openings. Former Spring Hill employees working at Bowling Green who transfer back to Spring Hill are not eligible for a basic relocation allowance, according to the contract.

Tim Stannard, president of UAW Local 1853, which represents about 1,500 hourly members at Spring Hill, said he doesn’t know how many want to return. He said some have opted to settle with their families in their new communities. Others have retired.

“It’s a good piece of work negotiated by our international ... to allow people to get closer back with their families,” he said.

GM and the union declined to provide estimates on how many workers could be impacted by the special one-time move, but it is likely in the hundreds.

A Nov. 4 memo from UAW Local 2164 representing Bowling Green (Kentucky) Assembly workers says all members displaced from Spring Hill since 2009 will receive a one-time offer by the end of the first-quarter 2016 to return to the plant. The memo, obtained by The Detroit News, said those who accept the offer will be moved to Spring Hill by the end of May.

It would be welcomed by many such as Nixon, 50, who headed to GM’s Lansing Delta Township Assembly Plant in 2010 and was able to transfer in early 2013 to GM’s Bowling Green plant. That got her closer to home, but she still commutes 80 minutes each way from her home in Antioch, Tennessee. The long days away from family and the traffic jams have taken their toll.

“I drive an hour and a half one way and we work 10 hours. It sucks,” she said. “I would be so happy. I’d be so much better. Right now I am so depressed.”

Duane Gonyea, 59, of Thompson Station, Tennessee, has bounced around a number of plants after working at Spring Hill, landing in August 2014 at Bowling Green from Lansing Delta Township. Each day, he wakes at 3 a.m. to join a carpool to take the two-hour trip north to the Kentucky plant.

“It’s been very difficult for our family,” Gonyea said. “It’s been super hard not only financially, but physically. We definitely want to get back to Spring Hill.”

Last month, GM announced it would begin taking applications for hundreds of entry-level positions at Spring Hill. The positions are expected to be filled early next year.

Many GM workers such as Nixon were angered that GM had plans to hire off the street.

Hundreds of hourly workers have been laid off since mid-October at Spring Hill due to tooling and vehicle changeovers in the plant, Stannard said. The plant stopped building the factory’s only vehicle — the Chevrolet Equinox — on Oct. 9. It is preparing to launch the new 2017 Cadillac XT5 there early next year, according to Stannard and GM plant spokeswoman Lee Ann Williams-Maley.

GM had used the Spring Hill plant as an overflow facility for the popular Equinox since fall 2012 when the plant reopened. GM has said Spring Hill will receive a second vehicle, but has not named it. Analysts expect it will be a smaller version of the GMC Acadia, which will move from the Lansing Delta Township plant.

Some former Spring Hill workers could not wait for the offer and have retired so they could return home, including Pat Stout, 58. She left her home in Spring Hill in February 2010 to work at Lansing Delta Township and longed to return to Spring Hill ever since. She retired Oct. 1.

Stout said Spring Hill transplants have heard before that they would be able to transfer. She hopes this time the estimated 125 workers at Lansing Delta Township who want to return will be able to. “I pray for all my friends that are still there that it’s the truth,” she said.

GM Bowling Green employee Fraser, 54, is happy he’s getting closer to returning to Spring Hill, though he doesn’t understand why it took so long for the union and company to agree to it. He commutes in a carpool daily to Bowling Green from his home near the Spring Hill plant.

“It means a whole lot,” he said. “I’m 10 to 15 minutes away from the plant.”

Ernest Gonzales only makes it home once or twice every few months. He rents a room in a house near the Fairfax plant and longs to go back home.

“I’ve missed my grandkids growing up. I’ve missed six years of their life,” he said. “We’ve had new babies being born and I haven’t even been able to be a part of it.”

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Staff Writers Michael Wayland and Michael Martinez contributed.