SPRING HILL Another temporary closure of the General Motors plant here until at least Feb. 9 has spread anxiety among workers and nearby business owners who rely on consumer spending by GM's local workers to bring profits to their stores.
"There's a lot of concern throughout the plant and the community," said Rob "Boomer" Lazzara, who retired from the facility in 2006 after 30 years with GM. He now operates a music store in Columbia, Tenn., just a mile from the facility's south entrance.
"Spring Hill has become a very diverse area over the past few years, so we don't depend on GM as much as we once did," Lazzara said. "But even so, if this plant were to close permanently, it would devastate the merchants. For most of us, GM employees and their families are at least 50 percent of our business."
The 3,500-employee plant, which makes the new Chevrolet Traverse crossover vehicle, stopped production Dec. 23 and will remain closed until at least Feb 9, said Michael Herron, chairman of United Auto Workers Local 1853, which represents the facility's hourly workers.
Local officials and suppliers that work closely with GM say they're worried, too. Three nearby companies that supply parts and service to the GM plant employ another 1,000 or so people in addition to Spring Hill's direct payroll.
Johnson Controls Inc., based in Columbia, which makes center consoles and seats for the Traverse, has already announced 110 layoffs.
But the broader fear this time is that GM itself might not survive, as poor auto sales fueled by a weak national economy and consumer credit crunch have pushed the U.S. automaker near bankruptcy.
GM, along with rival carmaker Chrysler, was forced to turn to the federal government for an emergency loan, which President Bush approved last week.
A total of $17.4 billion could flow to the two carmakers by spring. GM received the first $4 billion installment of the money on Monday, as did Chrysler LLC.
On the assembly line, workers say they fear for their jobs and the pensions that many of them have worked decades to earn.
Norm Jenks, 49, has worked for GM almost 29 years. He was one of the original Saturn employees when the Spring Hill plant opened in 1989 to make what was then a novel four-door sedan.
"There are a lot of people scared right now, not only about their jobs but also about whether they will be able to afford to retire," Jenks said. "A lot of us are already close to retirement age, but if GM fails, where will our pensions and health-care benefits go?"
While GM ordered most of its facilities to extend their holiday closings to early February to help bring vehicle inventories in line with consumer demand, the company has said that shutdowns could be continued if sales don't pick up in January.
"My fear is that this is only the beginning if the auto market doesn't settle," Jenks said.80 pecent of pay
The temporary shutdown won't hurt the workers in the pocketbook right away.
They will receive at least 80 percent of their regular pay during the time off, when state unemployment benefits are combined with supplemental pay guaranteed by the union's contract with GM.
But Spring Hill workers wonder whether their plant can survive the growing turmoil in the auto industry over the long haul on a single product, the Traverse crossover, whose sales have not met expectations since its launch in September.
A crossover is a SUV-like vehicle built on a car chassis to improve ride and handling and fuel economy.
"People on the floor at the plant see the writing on the wall," said Carl Grammatico, 51, a 32-year GM employee who has 18 years at the local plant. "We need another product to survive. We can't do it on the Traverse alone.
"I've never been so worried in my life," he added. "I've got all these years in, but right now I don't know whether GM will make it."
Many workers are so concerned about their futures that they, like many other American consumers, "are not going anywhere and not buying anything right now," Grammatico said. "We're all wondering if we'll have a job six months from now."
Lenny Canter, 47, who has worked at GM for 24 years and at Spring Hill since 1993, said he believes that GM "will ultimately survive. But it won't be the company we see today. It's going to be smaller and leaner."Spring Hill's strengths
In a pared-down GM, the Spring Hill facility has a better chance than most of the car maker's plants to continue production, though, workers, union members and local officials believe.
"In terms of efficiency and flexibility, this is a good plant," said Frank Tamberrino, president of the local economic development group, The Maury Alliance. "This is obviously one of the top facilities for GM, and we're in better shape than many other GM communities. You look at where some of the other plants are, and we're very lucky."
GM spent $690 million over the past year to retool the Spring Hill plant to build the Traverse, but the work also made the plant flexible enough to build "any product that GM makes, except for the Hummer," Tamberrino said.
"It has won the chairman's top award for efficiency the past three years, and it has great relations between labor and management," he said. "But even though this plant has a lot going for it, we know that there are no guarantees in the auto industry."
For now, merchants who depend on the plant will try to survive the latest shutdown, and will hope that it's only temporary, said Dawn Kelley, owner of Snappy Pizza, near the plant on the northern edge of Columbia.
"The uncertainty has really been affecting our business, which is down 30 percent to 40 percent," she said. "People are scared, so they're just not coming in. We're all worried about what's going to happen to GM."
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