GM moves new Chevy model to Lordstown

By Don Shilling

A new contract is expected to secure Lordstown’s future for 10 to 15 years.

LORDSTOWN — General Motors is ready to give its Lordstown complex a new small car that gets nearly 40 mpg, a union leader said.

“We’re going to have longevity. This car’s going to sell,” Jim Graham, president of United Auto Workers Local 1112, said at a news conference Friday about a new labor contract.

Graham didn’t provide any other details about a new model, but an industry analyst said it would be the new version of the Chevrolet Aveo, which is now made in South Korea.

Erich Merkle, an analyst with IRN in Grand Rapids, Mich., said GM plans to begin making the new model in Lordstown in 2010, to be followed by a new rear-wheel drive, mid-size model in early 2011.

He said substantial work will need to be done to the Lordstown complex to prepare for the new models.

Graham said such work will begin if workers ratify a tentative agreement on the labor contract.

“You are going to start seeing things move very rapidly toward a new product,” he said.

The plant produces the Chevrolet Cobalt and Pontiac G5. GM recently tweaked some Cobalt models with manual transmission to boost highway fuel economy from 33 mpg to 36 mpg. The Aveo with a manual transmission is rated at 34 mpg.

Cobalt production began in 2004 after a $1 billion renovation of the complex. The biggest item was a new paint shop that cost several hundred million dollars.

GM’s commitment to the complex was in doubt for years before that overhaul and has been questioned again recently.

A new local labor contract, however, would secure Lordstown’s future for two or three product cycles, said Ben Strickland, Local 1112 shop chairman.

“We’re hoping not to go through these arguments for another 10 or 15 years,” he said.

Despite GM’s interest in Lordstown, it still is increasing small-car production in Mexico, Merkle said. The Cobalt will be moved there because GM wants a high-production model in a new plant it is building, he said. He added that the Saturn Astra, which now is made in Europe, also will be moved to Mexico.

Lordstown workers will vote Monday and Tuesday on the tentative agreement, which was reached Wednesday. The contract would expire in 2011.

Strickland declined to release any details in advance of informational meetings for members Saturday.

A flier issued to members Friday listed some details, such as no consolidation of skilled trades job classifications. Industry analysts have said that GM has been looking to cut costs by having skilled trades workers train for additional jobs.

The flier said an alternative work schedule for production workers could be implemented no sooner than the summer of 2010 and only for a trial period of 90 days. It didn’t describe the schedule.

Strickland declined to discuss reports that GM is considering adding a third shift to the complex. GM eliminated the midnight shift in 2006 after 1,600 Lordstown workers left the company with buyout offers.

In a follow-up buyout offer made this year, 375 workers at the assembly plant and 175 workers at the fabricating plant agreed to leave July 1, Strickland said. The complex has about 3,400 hourly workers.

Strickland said he expects GM to replace these workers with new hires and by transferring workers from other plants.

A national labor contract signed last year provides that new workers who are hired into non-production roles, such as janitorial or landscaping, would be paid about half what existing workers receive. Strickland said 393 jobs in the assembly plant have been identified as falling into that category.

Local 1714, which represents workers at the fabricating plant, already has approved a new local agreement.

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