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Editorial: Still in gear at Tonawanda, Lockport GM plants

General Motors plants in the Town of Tonawanda and Lockport are not in the crosshairs. That’s the good news. But here’s the shocker: the company plans to idle five factories in North America and eliminate approximately 14,000 jobs.

For the affected workers and their families, it goes without saying: These will be difficult times, as production ends at assembly plants in Lordstown, Ohio; Detroit-Hamtramck, Mich.; and Oshawa, Ont., by the end of 2019. The company will also halt operations near Baltimore and in Warren, Mich.

Company officials may have made the decision based on a number of factors, not the least North American drivers’ preference for trucks and sport utility vehicles. The company plans to end production of the Chevrolet Cruze, Cadillac CT6, Chevy Impala and Buick LaCrosse. These vehicles are assembled at plants where the company plans to halt operations.

There may be something more to say about the benefits of diversification as workers here remain – so far, at least – unscathed. This region builds components for the Cruze and LaCrosse at the Lockport plant and engines for the CT6 and Impala in Tonawanda.

But as News business reporter Matt Glynn wrote, leaders of the Tonawanda plant announced this year plans to build a new line of fuel-efficient engines for the 2019 Chevrolet Silverado, GM’s best-selling pickup truck. The company’s investment strengthens an important part of the Western New York manufacturing economy.

Cuts to salaried workers will inevitably affect this area, but the company’s multimillion-dollar investments in the Tonawanda plant and Lockport site over the past couple of years should help sustain the workforce.

The automobile industry faces pressures, including low gasoline prices that have turn consumers’ gaze back to large-sized vehicles, as well as Trump administration tariffs affecting production costs, which have raised prices on domestic steel.

GM Chief Executive Mary T. Barra declined to cite precise reasons for the decision, instead choosing to focus on the company’s attempts to stay competitive in a “fast-changing market.”

Not everyone is convinced, least among them President Trump, whose 2016 campaign zeroed in on companies doing exactly what GM is likely to do – ramp up production in other countries, in this case China and Mexico. In response, the president has threatened to punish the company by ending federal tax credits, but Congress will have a say in that.

As Arthur Wheaton, an automotive industry expert at the Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations in Buffalo, observed in this newspaper, GM is catching up to competitors Ford and Fiat Chrysler America in instituting changes to vehicle production.

The United Auto Workers may win a fair amount of public support in arguing that GM benefited from a taxpayer-backed bailout when it needed it during bankruptcy in 2009.

Meanwhile, this region hopes executives continue to consider the Town of Tonawanda and Lockport plants vital to the company’s future.

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