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With big investment on the way, GM's Lockport plant carves out niche in the automaker's future

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FIN Ken Johnson CANTILLON (copy)

The GM components plant in Lockport.

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The future of General Motors is electric – and the automaker’s Lockport components plant has secured a role in that future.

GM has committed to converting to an all-electric car and truck lineup by 2035. With its $154 million investment announced Friday, GM will install new machinery and equipment at the Lockport site to make stator modules – key components in an electric motor.

The new investment is also expected to add 230 jobs at the plant between 2023 – when the new production kicks off – and 2026. A smaller portion of investment will go toward supporting the Lockport site's current operations.

Just as important, though, it establishes a role for the Lockport plant in GM’s future – clearing a hurdle that other local auto parts plants, including the automaker’s Tonawanda engine plant still must overcome.

And the investment cements the Lockport plant’s status within GM as it makes the transition from largely producing gasoline-powered vehicles to making mostly electric-powered cars, trucks and SUVs years from now.

"We've always said, we have to have one foot in the future and one foot in the present," said Ken Johnson, the Lockport plant director.

"It's that parallel manufacturing. You can't change to (electric vehicles) overnight. It's a gradual move," he said. "So you've got to be able to keep building what we're building and generate the revenue so you can afford to invest in the future and then build that part."

Gerald Johnson, GM's executive vice president of global manufacturing and sustainability, said electric vehicles are the wave of the future. The automaker plans to launch 30 new electric vehicle models by 2025 and be all-electric by 2035.

"Every time we look at the numbers in the forecast, the numbers all are going up," he said. "We really believe that the speed of transition to EVs is real, and it's coming at us in this decade pretty fast."

Michael DeLucas, president of United Auto Workers Local 686 and a fourth-generation Lockport plant worker, said GM's shift away from internal-combustion engine vehicles will take time.

"We're just going to transition from the internal combustion engine to the electric," DeLucas said. "And that's the future, so that's where we want to go. Jobs are jobs."

But he said the Lockport workforce is up to the task.

"We've got a very highly educated workforce here that knows what they've got to, knows the transition period it's going to take to get us to that point," DeLucas said. "I'm confident in our workforce and our membership. We've given up a lot, sacrificed over the decades here, and we're willing to move on to the future. And the future is electrification."

Other automotive plants, such as GM's Tonawanda engine plant, also face the challenge of adapting their production to the automaker's all-electric strategy.

"This is the roadmap," Gerald Johnson said. "This is how we transition our plants. We're taking over space that we have available, thankfully, and using it for EV while we're continuing to do internal combustion engine. And as EVs go up, we'll bring more work here for EV work and downsize the internal combustion program."

Sen. Charles Schumer said GM's chair and CEO, Mary Barra, reached out to him a few years ago, seeking federal support as the automaker adopted an all-electric lineup strategy. Schumer said he pledged to help, on the condition that GM increase jobs at its manufacturing operations in Lockport, Tonawanda and Rochester.

"We want to make New York and America the center of new electric car manufacturing in the world, and I want to make sure that Western New York gets its fair share of these jobs," Schumer said. "And here we are today."

Schumer said it is essential that U.S. manufacturing benefits from the auto industry's shift toward electric vehicles.

"We don't want to make the mistake that we made in the past, when too many manufacturing jobs went to China and other places," he said.

The new employees who will be hired at the Lockport site will join a workforce where family traditions run deep.

"I know many of you out there are second- and third-generation workers at this plant," said Ken Johnson, speaking to the workforce on Friday. "And that's really a testament to the impact that this operation has had on the Lockport community."

Schumer said the economic impact of the new jobs will go beyond those collecting the paychecks.

"When money from good-paying jobs flows into Western New York, it not only helps the families who get that money, it helps all the places they spend that money: the stores, the restaurants and the shops and everything else," he said. "So it's a big shot in the arm for our whole economy."

DeLucas said the new investment will have a "huge impact out in the community. 

"Money is brought in here, it's going to be spent out in the community," DeLucas said. "And there's better-paying jobs for the community, with a livable wage."

GM's project will revive dormant Building 9 at the vast complex. GM stopped using that building for production in 2006 and has used it for storage since then.

"Obviously we're taking advantage of assets we already have," Ken Johnson said of the vacant space. "But I think the real story here is, they're putting (the investment) here because the workforce is a proven commodity, the relationship that we have with our [union] local here is solid, and we've performed in the past."

Change is nothing new for the Lockport plant. The Niagara County factory, which traces its roots to Harrison Radiator in 1910, has proven its ability to adapt and survive over the decades. The Upper Mountain Road plant has endured through changes in names and affiliations, the shuttering of other plants, a GM bankruptcy filing and, during low points, questions about the plant's future.

Through those myriad challenges, the GM Lockport plant remains one of the region's largest manufacturers, with about 1,500 hourly and salaried employees.

Like other manufacturing operations with staying power, it has maintained its viability by continuing to attract new production as older products are phased out. The plant churns out a wide variety of components for a wide variety of GM vehicles, including the next-generation Colorado Canyon truck, and to support Chevy Silverado production in Oshawa, Ont.

Matt Glynn

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