GM: Most workers can transfer from idled plants

Ian Thibodeau
The Detroit News
General Motors Co. expects to be able to offer new positions to about 2,700 U.S. hourly employees affected by plans to halt production at four U.S. plants next year.

General Motors Co. expects to be able to offer new positions to about 2,700 of the 2,800 U.S. hourly employees affected by plans to halt production at four U.S. plants next year.

But some of those people would have to move across the country to keep working in GM plants. And that doesn't save the plants that GM plans to idle, said United Auto Workers officials and analysts.

"This is a really hard decision for folks to make, but it's gone on in UAW-GM history forever," said Kristin Dziczek, vice president of industry, labor and economics at the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor. "It all comes down to whether they are willing to sever rights to recall to their home plant."

GM is trying to right-size its manufacturing business as it pushes to invest more in electric and autonomous vehicles in the near future. The automaker was caught with too many plants building vehicles U.S. consumers aren't buying anymore: sedans. That means it has to cut production until it can renegotiate with the UAW next year.

The automaker in 2019 will pull product from five plants in the U.S. and Canada, which will lead to layoffs at those facilities. Four of the facilities are in the U.S. and employ about 2,800 hourly workers, according to data released Friday by GM. There are open positions at seven other GM plants, some of which would call for workers displaced by idled plants in Michigan, Maryland and Ohio to uproot and move to a new state.

"We have been clear that the UAW will leave no stone unturned and use any and all resources available to us regarding the future of these plants," UAW President Gary Jones said in a statement.

UAW spokesman Brian Rothenberg noted the out-of-state job offerings do nothing for UAW workers with roots in their communities. 

Ford Motor Co. is shuffling more than 1,000 hourly workers in its plants, but the Dearborn automaker had nearby plants with openings. Ford's transfers so far have been less disruptive than GM's.

Some GM line workers in Metro Detroit would have the option to commute to  other plants in Toledo, Flint or Lansing — but some could be offered jobs as far as Texas. In extreme cases like that, workers could receive between $5,000 and $30,000 to relocate, as negotiated by the UAW in the 2015 contract.

The announcement comes about three weeks after GM first announced it planned to pull slow-selling products out of U.S. plants, at least temporarily idling the factories. The move drew the ire of President Donald Trump and several other politicians as well as GM employees who felt blindsided by the news. 

GM CEO Mary Barra last week met with members of Michigan's U.S. congressional delegation to convey to lawmakers that she's trying to help the automaker respond to market shifts.

Lawmakers are furious at GM for moving to cease production next year at its Detroit-Hamtramck and Warren Transmission plants in Michigan; at Lordstown Assembly in northeast Ohio; at Baltimore Operations in Maryland; and at Oshawa Assembly in Ontario.

"I understand how GM's recent news is affecting our colleagues, families and communities," Barra wrote in a Friday tweet. "Our focus remains on helping employees. Today we have a plan for the majority of employees currently working at our impacted plants in Maryland, Michigan, Ohio and Oshawa, Canada that includes job opportunities at other GM facilities. We're committed to doing the right thing, for the future of GM and our people."

More than 1,100 U.S. employees have volunteered to transfer to other U.S. plants when the four U.S. factories currently making GM sedans and small cars go dark ahead of contract negotiations with the United Auto Workers next year, GM said Friday.

Of the 2,800 people affected by the idled plants, 1,200 are eligible to retire, GM said. The automaker has 2,700 positions open in the U.S. thanks to new vehicle launches in 2019. The automaker said plants in Lansing, Flint, Toledo, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee and Texas all need additional employees.

Considering the retirement opportunities and spots at new plants, all of those affected by the idled plants are accounted for. 

"GM has places for a lot of these people," Dziczek said. But, she said, "On net, there's fewer plants. There's fewer potential jobs."

The plants GM plans to idle next year were all operating in 2018 at low levels. Eight of 12 GM assembly plants in the U.S. were operating at 80 percent capacity or less this year, according to data from LMC Automotive. Automakers consider the break-even point for capacity utilization to be 80 percent. 

In addition to the plant changes next year, GM is expected to cut 8,000 salaried workers through buyouts or layoffs in early 2019. The automaker said Friday those employees would be provided career assistance upon exit.

President Trump on Thursday said that Barra's cost-cutting moves were "nasty." 

"I don’t like what she did, it was nasty," Trump said in an interview on Fox News.

"To tell me a couple of weeks before Christmas that she’s going to close in Ohio and Michigan, not acceptable to me," Trump continued. "General Motors is not going to be treated well."

GM can't officially close any plants — outside of special circumstances — outside of negotiations with the UAW. GM decided to "unallocate" products at those plants, meaning the plants won't be closed, but they won't be building anything. 

The fate of the U.S. facilities won't be decided until UAW contract negotiations next year.

Twitter: @Ian_Thibodeau