Oklahoma City's GM plant gets the ax

Monday, November 21st 2005, 8:59 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ The announcement that General Motors Corp. will shut its Oklahoma City assembly plant caught hundreds of employees at the plant by surprise Monday.

The plant, which assembles sport utility vehicles, is one of nine North American assembly, stamping and powertrain plants that GM says will close by 2008. It is part of an effort to get production in line with demand, the company said.

Nancy Sarpolis, a spokeswoman with GM in Oklahoma City, said 2,000 hourly and 200 salaried employees will lose their jobs locally. The Oklahoma City plant is to be closed in early 2006.

Norman resident Bob Tyrrell, who has worked the second shift at the plant since 1979, learned of the planned closure when a reporter called him at home Monday morning.

``I've been speculating this would come down the pike for a while, and I've been trying to look for work elsewhere,'' said Tyrrell, 45. ``I didn't think it would be this quick or this drastic.''

When asked if GM will transfer some employees to other company facilities, Sarpolis said, ``We don't know at this point. Provisions of the UAW (United Auto Workers) contract will be followed.''

The groundbreaking for the Oklahoma City plant was held in January 1974, and production began in 1979 on the Chevrolet Citation and Pontiac Phoenix. The first car produced at the facility was a white 1980 Chevrolet Citation that was donated to the Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce and is on display at the State Fairgrounds.

The plant has had an estimated $30 billion impact on the Oklahoma City area since it opened in 1979, according to a report from the Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce.

Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett said he's not optimistic the plant can be saved.

``I suppose there's always a chance, but it seems the underlying problem is a lack of demand,'' Cornett said. ``This is market-driven. I suppose if that were to change, then GM might rethink its thought process, but frankly I don't think that's going to happen.''

The decision to close Oklahoma City was a surprise to some locally because of the investment GM put into the plant following a tornado on May 8, 2003, that destroyed a new paint facility and other parts of the plant. After the tornado, the GM had full production restored in 53 days.

``I think at the time it was the right decision,'' Sarpolis said. ``We've built a lot of vehicles there since then. It's been a very productive facility since the tornado.''

Warren Evans, a GM employee at the Oklahoma City plant since 1983, said he and many workers at the plant were skeptical of GM's decision to retool the plant several years ago to produce the Chevrolet TrailBlazer and GMC Envoy, both mid-size SUVs.

``When they put this new product in there, the SUV, I knew it wasn't going to work out,'' Evans said. ``The market was already flooded with the SUVs.

``The engineers, to me, they're stuck on stupid. They never talk to us, the people on the line.''

Evans said an informational meeting is set up to inform workers of their options and go over the details of their contract. Evans said union workers are covered under the contract through 2007.

``I'm grateful for what I've got,'' Evans said. ``We'll still be protected.''

Lt. Gov. Mary Fallin said while the closure is a major setback for the state and will affect other businesses, she said state leaders will try to help minimize the impact of its closure.

``Of course, the timing right before the holidays is very unfortunate for our Oklahoma families,'' Fallin said. ``We'll do all we can to assist our employees of General Motors to find new jobs in Oklahoma City, and then we'll take a look at what GM's plans are for the facility and what we need to do as a state to help them.''

Larry Bartling, who works for EDS, which provides computer services to the plant, said he was worried about the effect on his company.

``It's kind of unbelievable. Coming during the holiday season, it's pretty bad.''

Fallin said if the plant is shuttered, efforts would shift to recruiting a major manufacturing or industrial concern that would be interested in the facility.

``The location of the plant is interesting,'' Fallin said. ``It's not very far from Tinker Air Force Base. There may be some opportunities with an aviation-related manufacturer or company.

``It is a prime piece of real estate and a good location.''