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How workers at GM Lockport built a turnaround

Several years ago, the Lockport factory that makes radiators, condensers and other parts for General Motors cars and trucks faced threats to its survival.

Its parent company at the time, Delphi Corp., had sunk into bankruptcy, and the plant was under pressure to fix its own financial woes. Even after returning to GM’s control, the plant had to prove itself worthy of bidding on new work. Without new projects, the plant’s long-range prospects were gloomy.

The outlook now is vastly different. It’s gearing up for new production and celebrating a quality award from GM. Other GM factories are inquiring about learning from its example. And the plant received the ultimate vote of confidence about a year ago: a $32 million commitment from GM for new investment.

“Some of the stuff that we’re doing is going to be extremely high profile and very key to General Motors’ financial success,” said William Tiger, the plant manager. He said he wasn’t yet free to reveal which vehicles the new products will support.

You won’t hear Tiger or the union’s chairman at the plant, Michael Branch, talk as if their work is done. But they feel confident about the course they are on and believe the plant has strengthened its ability to compete, for reasons including:

• Cooperation between Tiger and Branch, on identifying ways to improve plant operations and bid for new work.

• More input from the workforce. Employees are contributing ideas for running operations more efficiently and eliminating errors, and getting involved earlier when new production is coming.

• A greater attention to detail, improved production systems in line with GM’s expectations and more engineers.

The Lockport complex remains one of the region’s largest manufacturers, with about 1,400 hourly and salaried employees. The plant produces more than 10 million parts per year. Those parts supply a wide range of vehicles, including the Chevrolet Silverado, GMC Yukon, Buick Regal and Cadillac Escalade, assembled at plants in the United States and other countries.

Karen Hale works with a radiator at the GM Lockport plant. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

The Upper Mountain Road complex has a long history of auto parts production, going back to when it was known as Harrison Radiator under GM. In 1999, the complex, with more than 6,000 employees at the time, shifted to Delphi, an auto parts supplier spun off by GM. After rocky times with Delphi, GM reacquired the plant in 2009 and assigned it to its Components Holdings subsidiary. (A technical center at the Lockport site stayed with Delphi and now belongs to yet another company, Mahle.)

A couple of decades ago, the career path for the Lockport plant workers seemed clear, said Branch, chairman of United Auto Workers Local 686. “We thought you started working here, and 30 years later you retired from here, and everything’s good.”

But by the mid-2000s, the picture was cloudy. Delphi filed for bankruptcy in 2005 and wouldn’t emerge for four years. The auto industry underwent wrenching change, marked by GM’s own trip through bankruptcy and a Great Recession that hammered auto sales. Survival was not guaranteed: a different auto parts maker, American Axle & Manufacturing, ceased production at all three of its Buffalo area plants between 2007 and 2012.

Even after rejoining GM, as part of the automaker’s Components Holdings division, the Lockport plant faces a different task from most GM facilities. The plant has to bid against non-GM companies to win work with the automaker.

“It’s not just going to be given to them because they’re part of the GM family,” said Terry Dittes, director of the UAW’s Region 9.

But the Lockport workforce has risen to the challenge, Tiger said.

“We are being extremely successful on our bids,” he said, declining to reveal the percentage. “We’ve won almost everything we’ve bid on.”

New investment

Branch was elected shop chairman in 2012, and recently won re-election to the position. After taking office, he began working with plant management on trying to improve the Lockport site’s performance, first with then-plant manager Pat Curtis and then Tiger, who arrived in 2015.

New investment has since flowed in. In the past five years, GM has pledged about $80 million for the Lockport site, including $3.5 million announced last month for thermal products that have yet to be revealed.

GM to invest $3.5 million in Lockport plant

GM officials last summer projected U.S. new vehicle sales, across all manufacturers, would finish the year in the low 17 million unit range, amid expectations the industry was headed for a moderate downturn. That would fall short of the record high of nearly 17.6 million, set last year, but still well above the 10.4 million vehicles produced in 2009, at the depth of the recession.

The Lockport plant has positioned itself “to compete pretty well for the global supply chain for anything to do with the heating and cooling systems,” said Arthur Wheaton, director of Western New York labor and environmental programs for the Worker Institute, at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. “They’re managing their expertise, and that’s wonderful.”

Mike Wagner works with a computer and a 3-D Blue Light Scanner at the GM Lockport plant. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

The pressure does not let up. The Lockport plant constantly retools or replaces production equipment, to keep pace with changes in manufacturing, Tiger said. “If they change the shape of a vehicle, a lot of times our products have to change.”

Not that he is complaining. Upgrades mean production keeps flowing, and workers have jobs to report to. The workforce’s impact ripples through the local economy. Its employee payroll last year was $92.5 million. The workers also have a reputation for generously supporting a host of charitable causes, something that Tiger said made an impression on him after he transferred here for his job.

The Lockport site recently received a high-level GM quality award presented by GM manufacturing manager Kathleen Dilworth, who saluted the plant’s progress during her visit, said Mary Ann Brown, a GM spokeswoman. “Her remarks were, ‘Every day someone’s calling me saying they’re going to send people to Lockport to see how they’re doing it,’ ” Brown said.

Removing obstacles

Several years ago, that wouldn’t have been the case. From 2011 to 2013, GM wouldn’t let the site bid on new production until the plant addressed its shortcomings, Branch said. The plant lacked the engineering resources to support global production of parts and to develop new products. It also faced logistical challenges with shipping parts at an affordable cost. The plant lacked in-house capacity to test its products, outsourcing much of that work.

Tiger and Branch said the plant overcame the obstacles through greater attention to detail, improved production systems in line with GM’s expectations, and more employee involvement. More engineers were hired, and the plant established partnerships that allowed some products it designed to be made overseas, supporting the global approach GM wanted.

“They have won people over in the company,” said Dittes, the UAW’s Region 9 director since 2014. His vantage point within the UAW stretches beyond Western New York, encompassing a territory that includes parts of New York State, Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

The facility sharply reduced the amount of material that ended up as scrap, and has brought most of its product testing in house, to keep closer tabs on the results. When new products are launched, employees are included in that process much earlier than they used to, Tiger said.

New ideas

Workers are eager to share ideas to improve operations and wipe out defects, something the teams the employees belong to are asked to do, Tiger said. “They’ll stop you as you’re walking through the plant if they’ve got an idea of what we can do, or show you something that they did, which is really neat,” he said.

Lisa Hawkes has worked at the plant since 2000 and sees a difference. “We have more team engagement right now,” said Hawkes, a business area manager. “In the last year to year and a half, people are starting to understand, what do I need to do to be better? What do I need to when I come into work to make sure the product is made in the right way, and do I affect what I’m making for the customer?”

You never know who will have the answer. One example: The plant was trying to solve a small but persistent problem, involving the robotic welding of two aluminum parts. If a defect did occur, it showed up in the same corner of the material each time. Employees tried changing the tip angle and varying the voltage and other solutions, but the flaw kept appearing.

An employee without a welding background offered a suggestion: speed up the welding process in that area, to subject the metal to less heat.

“They actually tried it and it worked, and that’s what we’re doing today,” Tiger said. The defect was virtually eliminated.

For all the changes the Lockport plant has made to match GM’s manufacturing standards, Branch said personal relationships between union and management were vital to overcoming the struggles that plagued the plant in the past.

“The way we look at it is, you can continue to do what you’re doing, and you know where that’s going to end up, it’s a failure,” he said. “But if you really take a look at it, the things that are a priority to me, and the things that are a priority to Bill, are the same. If you can’t build a foundation on the things you agree about, you’re in the wrong job.”

William Tiger (left) and Michael Branch with a GM quality award. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

‘Battle of survival’

Dittes credited members of the union leadership team at the plant with putting themselves on the line by helping bring about changes in the plant’s operations. “They’re in elected positions,” he said. “If they do something that’s not popular, they run the risk of not getting elected again.”

The plant’s management, first Curtis and then Tiger, were essential partners in the process, too, Dittes said. “You can’t do it if you’re not doing it together.”

Wheaton, of Cornell University’s program, said the UAW has taken a similar cooperative approach with GM at other plants. “I think it’s more and more a battle of survival. You can’t be fighting with your employer if you’re worried about having all your jobs go to Kia or Hyundai or some other non-union plant.

“The UAW has pretty much always been pragmatic, but they’ve been even more so as they have seen all the worries about NAFTA and all the other things going on,” Wheaton said. “I think they don’t want to rock the boat. Buffalo has seen its share of brain drain and manufacturing loss. I don’t think they want to play games around here with that.”

Radiators undergo testing at the GM Lockport plant. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

Looking forward

The Lockport plant’s future will always depend on securing work for a few years from now, to fill the void created when current production phases out. “Today is good, tomorrow looks to be good,” Tiger said. “Are we locked up for the next 10, 15, 20 years? No. We have to keep doing what we’re doing.”

It also means ensuring the plant stays relevant to GM technologies, including electric and autonomous vehicles, Branch said. “When it gets to autonomous, the only person that’s going to win is the one who’s trusted to make quality parts all the time. You’re not going to get behind the wheel of a vehicle you don’t trust.”

Tiger and Branch say they don’t take the plant’s progress for granted. They know the risks of failing to keep up and stay competitive.

They want to avoid the problems that put the plant’s survival in question years ago. Now it’s a matter of producing the kind of results that even sister GM plants want to know about.

“We’re set up really well going forward, because now we’ve got the engineering resources on the product, we’ve got the manufacturing system in place on the floor, we’ve got the test equipment,” Tiger said. “The plant’s getting set up really well for long-term success.”

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