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$328 million investment a relief for workers at General Motors

A General Motors plan to spend $328 million at its plants in the Town of Tonawanda and Lockport reassured workers at the two sites who once worried about their future.

GM on Wednesday pledged to invest $296 million in the Tonawanda site for a new engine line, committing to retaining 854 jobs and creating 67 new jobs as part of the project.

At the Lockport plant, GM will invest $32 million for new components production. That project will retain 320 jobs, including 13 salaried positions.

Steve Finch, the Tonawanda plant manager, said announcements like Wednesday’s were a welcome contrast to the depths of the Great Recession, when workers wondered if their plant would survive.

“Basically, this takes that off the table, for at least the foreseeable future,” Finch said. “We know what we’re building today and we know what the next generation of engines are. That takes a lot of worry and fear off of people’s minds, and then they can just go to work.”

 [Related: Columnist David Robinson says Rust Belt manufacturing is far from dead in Buffalo Niagara]

GM has not shared specifics about the new engines the Tonawanda plant will make, but Finch said it would represent the next step for the plant’s existing “Generation V” engine line.

“They’re going into future vehicle products that we’re not prepared to announce yet, for competitive reasons,” said Kathleen Dilworth, GM manufacturing director.

Dilworth and other GM officials were joined by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and United Auto Workers leaders at the Tonawanda plant to hail the investments.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo greets a worker at General Motors Powertrain on Wednesday. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

Along with the Tonawanda and Lockport projects, GM will pour about $6 million into new components production at its plant in Rochester, for a combined $334 million across the three upstate New York plants. All three projects are due to be completed by the end of 2018.

“Let’s be honest, GM is going to spend that much money, they could pick up this plant, they could go anywhere,” Cuomo said. “And they’re betting on Buffalo, and they’re betting on Western New York, and they’re making that investment here, because they believe in Buffalo’s future. They believe in the partnership they have with the state of New York.”

Empire State Development will provide up to $7 million in capital grants and Excelsior Tax Credits in return for job and investment commitments at the three sites.

The investments in the three upstate facilities are part of $1.9 billion GM plans to spend at 12 U.S. plants as part of a four-year contract approved in fall 2015 by United Auto Workers members. GM has made similar investment announcements around the country since workers ratified the deal.

The Tonawanda and Lockport plants are both vital pieces of the Buffalo Niagara region’s manufacturing base, and they rely on new investment to stay viable as older products are phased out.

Both plants have proven their staying power in the face of adversity. The Tonawanda engine plant, which has 1,700 employees, survived GM’s plant cut list in 2009, when the auto industry was in turmoil. The Lockport plant, which has 1,400 employees, was among the few Delphi sites GM took back from the auto parts supplier it had spun off, and had faced uncertainty about its own future.

The Tonawanda plant produces engines for GM trucks, SUVs and cars. Its Generation V engines, which go into vehicles including full-size trucks like the Chevrolet Silverado and SUVs like the Yukon, Suburban and Escalade, are a hit for the Tonawanda plant. To keep up with demand, that engine line runs three shifts a day and two out of three shifts on Saturdays, “and the machining operations are basically running 24/7,” Finch said.

Finch said he did not yet have much information from the automaker about the new engine line, but said it would be the new version of the Generation V engine family.

Preparations related to the new investment are under way, Finch said.

“They’re making the announcement today because we have to do a lot of work to get ready for it, in terms of building the equipment and getting on with the project, but they haven’t released any details of the project,” Finch said.

Chuck Herr, shop chairman of United Auto Workers Local 774, which represents hourly workers at the Tonawanda plant, said the new investment “will help secure our future.”

Tool setter Dave Phillips inspects tolerances on a engine block on Wednesday. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

The workers’ attention to detail and track record of successful product launches helped pave the way for the latest investment, Herr said.

“Remember, there are other plants that are losing shifts and other work that is going out of the country,” Herr said. “So we have many things to be grateful for this holiday season.”

At the Lockport site, the new components will consist of powertrain cooling applications for three different vehicles, but specifics have not been disclosed. Michael Branch, chairman of UAW Local 686 Unit 1, said the Lockport plant will soon launch production of the first of a series of components that are planned as part of the new investment.

Branch recalled the “perilous position” the Lockport site was in about five years ago.

“We had a few issues there, but our plant was really slated to close, and a lot of our members ended up (transferring to GM Tonawanda),” he said. “Yet here we are today, taking part in an investment announcement that nobody thought would happen for Lockport, or I should say, most people didn’t think would happen.”

UAW and GM leaders visited the Lockport plant four years ago and “saw our team working to find unique, non-traditional solutions to the barriers that kept us from pursuing new work,” Branch said.

Branch said union leaders focus on securing production of very competitive products, rather than just a headcount of employees at the plant to strengthen their place within GM.

“We’re looking for products that Lockport makes the best in the world,” Branch said. “There are some that we do. And those are the ones we know we can support GM with and make them a better company. And the headcount will organically follow. You get the work, you’re good at what you do, the headcount comes.”

James Lakeman, a UAW Region 9 representative, said the Lockport plant has “grown leaps and bounds in how they source things and how they bid things.”

Dilworth, the GM manufacturing director, said of the Tonawanda and Lockport plants: “They’re great plants and we’ve got a good partnership, and a willingness to work together to be competitive. In this global environment, that’s critical.”

GM in 2010 committed $825 million to the Tonawanda site to support two new engine lines, and invested a total of $44 million in its Lockport components plant in 2012 and 2013. The Rochester plant has received nearly $200 million in investment since 2011.

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