Where Saturn Started, Workers Await a Revival

By Catherine Rampell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 27, 2007

SPRING HILL, Tenn., Sept. 26 -- At the former Saturn plant here, workers put down their picket signs Wednesday and said they were relieved to see an end to the two-day strike against General Motors, but they worried whether the union's deal would lead to a more secure future.

"I'm still worried about our jobs going overseas," said Darrell DeJean, 54, an electrical technician at the plant. "I know how big companies commit to something and suddenly pull out."

The United Auto Workers leadership did not release details of the tentative agreement they reached with GM early Wednesday morning, so workers remained in the dark about many of the issues affecting them and their fellow union members nationwide.

This old Civil War town with a population of 23,000 has witnessed highs and lows of the domestic car industry. The plant, which is in a cornfield and employs 1,400 workers, rolled out the first Saturn to great fanfare in 1990, but has hemorrhaged workers over the years. Last spring, 2,200 UAW Local 1853 members were laid off when GM moved its production of the Saturn Ion and Vue to Mexico and Europe.

Because some of the key elements of the negotiations centered on how much leeway the company might have in moving more operations overseas, workers here hope the contract includes some guarantees of work for years to come.

The plant here now makes only engines and parts for GM cars, company spokesman Greg Martin said. GM has begun upgrading the factory but hasn't said what cars might be built here. Local union leaders said GM was spending $700 million to retool the plant so that it could start manufacturing a new model next year.

"This plant will one day be the crown in the jewel of General Motors, there is no doubt in my heart," said Mike O'Rourke, president of Local 1853. He said he had worked with GM for two years to secure the plant's future.

Still, some workers aren't taking that assurance to the bank. "They've mothballed brand-new plants before," said Byron Blankenship, 52, who previously worked at an Indianapolis plant where he said GM invested several million dollars in a new paint shop only to close it several months later.

Even if workers escape layoffs or production changes, some said the recent two months of negotiations left them afraid that outsourcing would affect the funding of their retirements and hasten the erosion of the middle class as a cultural institution.

"We were striking not just for ourselves but for all Americans," said Laura Rudder, 56. "There were some people driving by who were giving us the finger yesterday, but I don't think they realized that we're doing this for them and for their kids."

Other drivers, many in GM cars and trucks, honked to express sympathy as they passed picketers Wednesday on Saturn Parkway. Local politicians stopped by to say hello, and local businesses and residents dropped off water, coffee and snacks throughout the day.

Unlike Detroit, which has a long history in the auto business, not everyone here feels kinship with GM workers. When the plant opened and the town was almost entirely farmland, GM's policy of hiring only UAW transfers from around the country drew animosity from local residents who felt the jobs should have been theirs, said Mark Wilkerson, 42, a UAW crew coordinator.

"At the grocery store, we'd hear them say 'Yankee, go home' under their breath," Wilkerson recalled. "But around 1995 or 1996, when we started hiring locals off the street, things started to get more warm and fuzzy."

According to many union workers, Local 1853 has an unusual relationship with the plant's management: They got along.

When the Saturn Corp. was first created, it was separate from GM with an unorthodox structure and a model to rival those being made in Japan.

The Spring Hill plant, which was initially the only Saturn production site, treated management and union as partners, according to union workers and managers. The shop was divided into teams, each led by a management and union representative.

"We were a marriage," said Tommy Floyd, 49, a member of the Local 1853 executive board. "People left their families from all over the country to come to this plant and create a new family."

As a result of that collaboration, the hierarchy was more relaxed, and some workers said they had more say in the decision-making process. "The idea was to use workers from the neck up and not just from the hands down," said Mike Herron, shop chairman.

But as the years wore on and Saturn cars didn't sell as well as GM had hoped, the unit lost autonomy. It was folded into the national GM contract in 2005.

Despite that, some of the collegiality between workers and management remains. At some plants, bosses drive their workers to want to strike; at this plant, some bosses drive their workers to the picket line.

"My boss actually gave me a ride to strike duty," said Bill Barrett, 53.

Throughout the two-day strike, managers stopped to greet them, give them refreshments and even express support. Managers were required to report to work on Monday and Tuesday, and the strikers let them cross the picket line undisturbed.

"Our managers know this isn't about animosity towards them," Herron said.

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