Sunday, December 17, 2006

Community, union resize GM future

Sat December 9, 2006
Community, union resize GM future
By Tim Martin
Associated Press Writer

LANSING, Mich. — Piles of crushed concrete and broken brick wait to be hauled away as bulldozers tear down old General Motors Corp. factories that have stood for a century on the banks of the Grand River in downtown Lansing.

Behind the demolition, a gleaming white Cadillac factory built five years ago with state-of-the-art technology greets the next generation of auto workers.

GM has a far smaller presence in the Lansing area than it had just a few years ago. But the automaker’s new factories here are more efficient and better-suited to survive in the hyper-competitive automotive industry.

Some see elements of a model GM could borrow from as it reshapes itself to compete with Toyota Motor Corp., Honda Motor Co. and other foreign companies that have cut into its market share the past few decades.

"This is the factory model that will turn GM around, put it back on the map,” says Marion Glasscoe, who helps assemble the Cadillac CTS and STS sedans and the SRX crossover vehicle in the Lansing Grand River Assembly factory just blocks from the state Capitol. "We just had some hard times. But I think with what we’ve got coming forward, it’s going to turn GM completely around.”

Just west of Lansing in Delta Township, a factory that makes the GMC Acadia and Saturn Outlook and soon will add the Buick Enclave .

The vehicle assembly plants are GM’s first to be built in the United States since Saturn began building cars in 1990 in Spring Hill, Tenn.

Meanwhile, GM’s older Lansing factories have been partially torn down or await potential buyers. But GM’s downsizing could have hit Lansing much harder. Were it not for innovative partnerships with the United Auto Workers and local government officials, the automaker might not have much of a presence left in Lansing.

"General Motors was actually on the way out of Lansing,” said David Cole, an analyst with The Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor. "But the community came together. Lansing has really gone through a renaissance as far as GM is concerned.”

Former Lansing Mayor David Hollister was told in the 1990s that GM was going to close its main city assembly lines. Hollister started a regional committee aimed at salvaging GM’s presence, capitalizing on a history of positive relationships between the local UAW and company management.

"We came at it completely unified,” Hollister said. "And that made all the difference.”

Lansing and surrounding townships agreed to share the benefits and the costs related to the factories, putting aside political squabbling. GM ultimately was persuaded to build its Cadillac plant in the city. The automaker was impressed enough with the region’s effort to open its crossover vehicle factory in nearby Delta Township a few years later. Both plants allow the automaker to produce a variety of vehicles on the same assembly line, cutting costs and increasing productivity.

Production employees work in teams of four to six members on the assembly line, each cross-trained to do every job in the group. Each worker has the power to stop the assembly line if a problem arises. That gives UAW members a mix of responsibility and authority not present in most GM factories.

•General Motors Corp. may further reduce its blue-collar work force by offering another round of buyouts, according to an industry analyst.
In a note to investors after a meeting with Troy Clarke, GM’s North American president, JP Morgan analyst Himanshu Patel wrote that GM has studied Ford Motor Co.’s buyout packages and may make an offer to workers in 2008 or later.

Ford’s buyout and early retirement offers drew 38,000 workers.

GM’s packages earlier this year enticed about 34,400 workers to leave the company. About 30,000 will have left by the end of this year, GM has said.

•GM is moving past the cost cuts of 2006 to transform itself into a company that puts car and truck design above everything, company officials said.

At GM’s Heritage Center in suburban Detroit, Chairman and Chief Executive Rick Wagoner said the automaker is focused on becoming the world leader in design.

"We want you to see first hand that we at GM are obsessed with, once again, making our cars and trucks leaders in design,” he said.

The Associated Press

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