Friday was a day employees at General Motors' Town of Tonawanda engine plant had been looking forward to.
The official launch of a next-generation four-cylinder Ecotec engine line was celebrated as a project injecting new life and work into a plant that has coped with uncertainty in recent years.
The plant has added production of 2.5-liter and 2.0-liter "turbo" engines for the 2013 Chevrolet Malibu and Cadillac ATS. Production of the engines began a few months ago.
Plant and union officials who gathered outside the complex along Vulcan Street praised GM's $425 million investment as a vote of confidence in the Tonawanda site, as well as a boost for the workforce.
"It's joint leadership," said Steve Finch, the Tonawanda plant manager. "It was the [GM] management and the UAW [senior] leadership that decided this was the right place to put work, and we're going to prove them right."
Robert Coleman, shop chairman of United Auto Workers Local 774, said the workers' commitment to quality helped secure the new line. "We have the best workforce around," he said.
More new work is imminent. In early 2013, the Tonawanda plant will launch production of a new V8 engine. That engine will start out in full-size trucks, and will be expanded into full-size SUVs and premium vehicles yet to be identified. The V8 line represents a $400 million investment by GM.
The Tonawanda complex has 833 hourly and 185 salaried workers, for a total of 1,018. That number is expected to rise to about 1,400 by early 2014, as the new engine lines reach full staffing levels.
James Lakeman, a UAW Region 9 representative, reflected on how the plant's workers had persevered.
"These are the people that when GM was going through bankruptcy and it was bleak, they came to work every day, they worked safely, they put quality engines out for a world-class manufacturer, and that's the reason this work is here," Lakeman said.
At the height of the auto industry's crisis, the Tonawanda plant complex avoided shutdown by GM, but still endured layoffs and the phaseout of engine lines. In 2010, the announcement of two new engine lines gave the workers renewed hope about their plant's position within a restructured GM.
James Glynn, GM's manufacturing manager and a Tonawanda native, said the Tonawanda plant is well-regarded within the company.
"Though competitive reasons keep me from revealing actual figures, I'm happy to report that the Tonawanda engine is the best engine in terms of warranty in all of General Motors," Glynn told the workers. "That proves you are the best at building engines. And your dedication to the business and to each other has been recognized and applauded throughout the corporation."
The new four-cylinder engines from Tonawanda are shipped to three GM assembly plants, in Kansas City, Kan., Detroit, and Lansing, Mich. "When you add up all those plants, there are literally thousands of people that are depending on the Tonawanda team to deliver outstanding engines each and every day," Glynn said.
The new four-cylinder Ecotec engine line has entered production as some other products at the plant are exiting. Production of the L850 will cease, probably at year's end, and the plant will stop making "Inline" four- and five-cylinder engines in late July.
The Tonawanda plant's gains go beyond the new engine lines. The last of the plant's laid-off workers returned to their jobs early this year, and the facility is adding employees. GM said that in addition to the laid-off workers who returned, the plant has added 54 workers: 21 who came from other GM facilities, and 33 new hires.
The Tonawanda complex has also revived part of its dormant Plant 4 for a "logistical optimization center," where employees create kits of parts needed by operators building the engines. The system frees up space at the engine line, eliminates extra walking for workers, and has created new jobs.
Dozens of plant workers attended Friday's ceremony, along with elected officials, GM officials, car dealers and other guests.
Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, called GM's two investments in Tonawanda and Ford Motor Co.'s announced $136 million investment in its Hamburg stamping plant "not coincidental."
"It speaks volumes of the good, hard-working people of this plant, it speaks volumes of the good, hard-working people of Western New York," Higgins said.
Also Friday, General Motors Foundation grants totaling $50,000 were awarded to four organizations. The recipients and the dollar amounts are: United Way of Buffalo and Erie County and American Cancer Society, $20,000 each; and the Boys and Girls Club of Western New York and the American Heart Association, $5,000 each.