General Motors’ Town of Tonawanda engine plant celebrated its 75th anniversary on a warm, sunny Friday, amid a bright outlook for its future.
The atmosphere was in stark contrast to a frigid day in December 2008, when auto plant workers, managers and supporters rallied on the front steps for the federal government to save the U.S. auto industry. The prospects for the River Road complex and its parent company were uncertain then.
“GM received both grants and loans,” said Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo. “The promise was that GM would fight back, and GM would pay back its obligations to the federal government; it has done that. It has also doubled the employment at this plant.”
Although GM is strong now and paid back $6.7 billion in loans, not all the government money has been recouped. Of the roughly $50 billion the government loaned to GM, $19.1 billion remains unpaid, according to the Congressional Research Service. The government owns 17.7 percent of GM’s stock, but it would have to reach nearly $80 a share to recover all of the amount. The stock closed at $35.05 Friday.
The Tonawanda plant today has 1,862 hourly and salaried workers, as it ramps up to meet the production demands from two new engine lines worth a combined $825 million. The new lines support the 2013 Chevrolet Malibu and Cadillac ATS, and the 2014 Chevy Silverado, Corvette and GMC Sierra.
GM Tonawanda reveled in the moment Friday with public tours that were expected to attract thousands of people. Special guests at a morning event praised leaders of the plant and Local 774, United Auto Workers, for cooperating to overcome the adversity of a few years ago.
The plant is nearing production of its 71 millionth engine since 1938. GM has invested $2.3 billion in the site in the past 10 years, said Jim Glynn, GM’s North American labor relations vice president and a Tonawanda native.
“It’s everybody working together, working through the good times and the bad times, that have brought over 1,000 new jobs to this plant in the last two years alone,” Glynn said.
Robert Coleman, UAW 774’s shop chairman, also recalled the 2008 rally and how the autoworkers felt at the time.
“Most everybody here at Tonawanda, we didn’t like that term ‘bailout,’ because we knew we were good, we knew what we could do,” he said. “When we stood united with everybody as a team, that’s what made this work.”
Coleman credited Local 774’s shop committee for navigating through a trying period: “There was a time when our plant was at 600 people, and they knew they had to do very unpopular things, and people would frown on them. But they did not let that discourage them one bit. They knew what they had to do to keep this plant going.”
Plant manager Steve Finch noted that some of what the Tonawanda plant produces now goes overseas. “We build engines, and we build components, we ship them over to China,” he said. “Every time we put a bunch of them in a box and a crate, and put them on them on the ocean, I say, ‘Bam, take that.’ ”
Guy Newell, president of UAW 774, reflected on how much things have changed since he began working at the plant in 1970. “What was once a dirty, extremely physical job is now an ergonomically, highly skilled and green facility with two priorities: safety for the employees and quality for the customers,” he said.
Michael Weiner, president of the United Way of Buffalo & Erie County, said the plant’s impact extends into the community. Since 1994, employees of the Tonawanda plant have contributed more than $5.4 million to the United Way’s annual campaign, he said.
Bill Shaw, GM’s North American manufacturing manager – and a Tonawanda plant official in the late 1990s – said the plant is recognized within the company.
“There is no other engine plant in North America that has produced and developed more engine family variants than the Tonawanda engine plant,” Shaw said. “And as you look the history, it’s quite impressive.”