GM to invest $300M in Orion, add 400 jobs for new EV

Nora Naughton
The Detroit News
GM Chairman and CEO Mary Barra on Friday announces a $300 million investment at the automaker's Orion Assembly Plant to produce a new Chevrolet electric vehicle.

Orion Township — After nearly a week of presidential criticism of General Motors Co.’s plan to close its Lordstown Assembly Plant in Ohio, CEO Mary Barra visited another plant north of Detroit to confirm the automaker would invest $300 million to build a new electric vehicle.

Barra announced Friday that GM is investing in the Orion Assembly Plant to build a new electric Chevrolet as part of a larger $1.8 billion U.S. manufacturing investment to be made in the coming years — an implied rebuttal to President Donald Trump's escalating attacks on the Detroit automaker's restructuring.

The new electric vehicle, originally expected to be built overseas, instead is scheduled to be built at the United Auto Workers-represented plant that GM designated for small-car production as the automaker emerged from federally induced bankruptcy a decade ago. The move adds 400 new jobs at the plant.

"These announcements continue something I want to be very, very clear about," Barra said. "GM is absolutely committed to investing in and growing good-paying manufacturing jobs in the United States — jobs that strengthen us today and will improve our position for the future."

The automaker said it opted to repatriate production of the new EV to a U.S. plant to support "the rules of origin provisions in the proposed United States, Mexico and Canada Agreement," the Trump administration's replacement for the 25-year-old North American Free-Trade Agreement.

Orion Assembly, which currently runs on one shift, will continue to assemble the Chevrolet Bolt EV, Chevrolet Sonic and Cruise AV test autonomous vehicles alongside the new product, a GM spokesman said. The addition of another Chevrolet electric vehicle is the latest in GM's march to 20 new zero-emission vehicles by 2023.

The investment in Orion is part of GM's larger $1.8 billion investment in its U.S. manufacturing operations across six states, a move the company says is adding a total of 700 jobs. Also included in that $1.8 billion are recent commitments to invest in plants in RomulusLansing Delta Township and Spring Hill, Tennessee. GM says additional investments "will be announced later."

GM's decision to build the new EV in the United States comes as the company has become the target of presidential ire. Trump has taken to Twitter in recent days to criticize GM and the UAW over the idling of the automaker's Lordstown Assembly Plant in northeast Ohio.

Trump blasted the automaker and the UAW that represents its factory employees during a Wednesday visit to a UAW-represented army tank plant in Lima, Ohio. It's not clear when GM reversed its decision to build the new Chevrolet EV overseas, but a company spokesman insisted the Orion announcement is not in response to pressure from the president and that the Friday event been planned for "weeks."

"We believe in a strong U.S. manufacturing base we want to create jobs — good paying jobs," Barra said. "I think that’s where there’s a common message" between GM and Trump.

GM is idling four U.S. plants by January 2020, with Lordstown the first to stop production on March 6. The future of Lordstown, Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly, Warren Transmission and Baltimore Operations will be decided by GM and the UAW, which begin negotiating a new national contract this summer.

Terry Dittes, UAW vice president and director of the GM department, said the union expects more investments like the one at Orion. He also said that members face "hardship" at four GM plants scheduled to be "unallocated."

"The UAW doesn’t allocate product," Dittes said after Friday's announcement. "Those four locations will not be forgotten by the UAW. We’ll take that up with General Motors as we move forward."

Barra told reporters Friday, "We obviously want to have good discussions and we have issues we need to address to get on the same page. When you are able to demonstrate that the company is strong and able to make investments — $300 million to create 400 new jobs — I think that’s where we have a lot in common."

The new Chevy EV will be based on the current electric-vehicle architecture that underpins the Bolt. GM's next-generation electric vehicle platform will debut on a yet-to-be-named Cadillac, when GM's luxury brand will take the lead on electrification.

Threatened with closure, Orion Assembly survived in 2009 by becoming a hub for small-car production thanks to hefty incentives from the State of Michigan and concessions made by the UAW as GM worked through federally induced bankruptcy. Most other manufacturers outsource small-car manufacturing to lower-cost countries like Mexico, Japan and South Korea because the high cost of U.S. labor is difficult to justify on lower-margin vehicles.

The new product was welcome news to workers at the plant here, because that generally signals job security. They cheered CEO Mary Barra's announcement on the plant floor.

"It's been looking pretty gloom around here," said Suzy Lane of Oxford, a UAW-represented worker whose been at Orion Assembly since 2006. Without a new product to look forward to in recent years, Lane said she and her colleagues "have been kind of dragging our feet. As long as we have a product coming everyone has a future to look forward to. We know we're secure."

The investment at Orion is the latest among a series of U.S. plant investments and comes in the same week GM said it plans to spend $2.65 billion at two Brazilian plants, where it builds vehicles for the South America market. Since GM made its restructuring announcement in November, the UAW has escalated its criticism of the automaker's investment in overseas production — particularly production of the Chevrolet Blazer in Mexico.

Twitter: @NoraNaughton