By Daniel Pye<br><a href="mailto:email@example.com">E-mail Dan</a>
Idled machines on one side and bustling activity on the other served as a stark reminder to crowds assembled at the General Motors Powertrain plant Thursday, sitting on the dividing line between productive industry and layoffs.
But all that unused space could be back at work in fewer than two years, as GM announced it is spending $425 million to place a new engine line at the town’s Powertrain plant, projected to be ready in 2012. It’s an investment that is expected to bring back every one of the facility’s laid off workers and even add some new ones.
Tonawanda’s plant is receiving a majority of the $494 million being spent on the next generation of four-cylinder Ecotec engines, something that Shop Chairman Bob Coleman attributes to the dedication of local workers and the quality they consistently produce. But that hard work hasn’t always been able to stave off tough times.
Past attempts at investment
Thursday’s event — complete with remarks from Gov. David Paterson — was eerily reminiscent of a similar gathering held in June 2007, when then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer came to town to commend the company for committing a $100 million diesel line to the plant. That announcement followed a January 2007 promise of a $300 million investment for a V8 engine line. But spiking gas and diesel prices and a poor economy killed both of those projects, leaving the jobs that were supposed to be created or saved in GM’s loss column instead.
Tony Jukiel, a millwright who has spent 37 years at the Tonawanda plant in various capacities, said the writing was on the wall for bigger engines before the company planned those new models.
“Even when they announced that new V8, I couldn’t see the V8 being the right thing,” Jukiel said. “The days of the muscle car are gone. I mean people with money can afford their toys, but most people are looking for economy.”
That’s part of the reason for Thursday’s optimistic attitude. Unlike other announced investments in diesel and V8 engines that failed to materialize, the planned four-cylinder engine is a product that Coleman and others believe to be a better sell to consumers.
“This is the new GM, and I’m excited to be a part of it,” Coleman said.
The second-generation Ecotec four-cylinder engine — Thursday’s guest of honor — was unveiled at the end of the presentation. Denise Johnson, GM’s vice president of labor relations, said innovations the company pioneered in the engine’s original incarnation have been duplicated by the competition.
“Direct fuel injection, a hallmark of many Ecotec engines since 2007, is just now becoming mainstream technology in the industry,” Johnson said.
The company’s focus on fuel economy and clean energy extends beyond gasoline engines as well, evidenced by the fuel cell vehicles displayed at last week’s auto show. As technology shifts toward alternatives to gas engines in powering cars, Congresswoman Louise Slaughter, D-Fairport, warned the business and union leaders not to peg the local plant as a gas engine-only facility.
“We can also manufacture a heck of a fuel cell when you’re ready,” Slaughter said.
Drawing business back home is now not only a domestic versus overseas issue. Competition among GM facilities within the U.S. is just as intense, something Coleman said both the plant’s UAW executive board and shop committee worked to address.
Jukiel said nationally the UAW has been urging consolidation and cross-training of skilled tradesmen into general mechanical and electrical groups rather than having each person specialize. But that’s something he said has been going on in Tonawanda for years before the mandate, putting the facility in a somewhat better position than others. Although pipefitters with some knowledge of mill work might not be able to do a millwright’s job on their own, Jukiel said they’re more than qualified — and willing — to help out if he needed a hand.
“People at Tonawanda have always helped people out. There’s no one saying, ‘That’s not my job,’” Jukiel said.
Jobs by the hundreds
That attitude and concessions that the union members made to the company in good faith seemed to have paid off, and that means UAW workers are coming back to work in the near future.
The plant currently employs only 650 salaried and hourly workers after layoffs in December swelled the ranks of displaced employees to around 300. With the new line adding 411 hourly jobs and around 60 management positions, plant spokeswoman Nina Price said all of the local workers on indefinite layoff will get their jobs back first. Then offers will be extended to those on layoff from other plants before job opportunities are opened up to the general public.
Sen. Charles Schumer was one of many elected officials present to cheer GM’s local investment. For Schumer, one of many senators who voted to bail out the auto industry in the face of vocal opposition, this new influx of jobs and opportunity disproves those who said America should let go of manufacturing jobs in favor of other pursuits.
“They were wrong and we were right to rescue GM,” Schumer shouted to the crowd to roaring applause.
Contact reporter Daniel Pye at 693-1000, ext. 158.