STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Let's go now to the General Motors Lordstown Assembly Plant in northeast Ohio, where 2,200 people are back at work. They learned this week they'll be joined by nearly 1,100 more in the fall. That's thanks to hot sales of the subcompact Chevrolet Cobalt. The Cobalt's upscale replacement, the Chevy Cruze, is due out next spring. And that's seen by many as the real hope for GM. From member station WKSU, M.L. Schultze reports.
M.L. SCHULTZE: If Lordstown had city blocks, the GM assembly plant would cover about 45 of them. It's just that big. At its peak, the plant could've employed every man, woman and child in the village of 3,600 and still had openings.
Even Lordstown's exit off of the Ohio Turnpike, about 20 miles west of Youngstown, would not be there if not for GM. So the Chevy Cruze is a big deal here. GM has invested more than $350 million in retooling Lordstown with 800 new robots, reengineered supply lines and a massive new body shop to consolidate Cruze production. Beginning in April, Lordstown will be turning out one of the few small cars that GM has designed and developed in decades.
Tiffany King has spent a dozen years on the Lordstown assembly lines and remains proud of the cars of the past. But this one, she says it's different.
Ms. TIFFANY KING (Assembly line worker, General Motors): The Cavalier was popular. It's still popular. The Cobalt, we're still building it, and whatever. But I think a little bit more excitement with this one. Everyone's anticipating it. There's people at my church that are willing to not buy a car right now because they're excited about the new Cruze.
SCHULTZE: David Green heads one of the two UAW locals here. Even during the summer's nine-week shutdown, some of his members were reconfiguring the plant floor for the Cruze.
Mr. DAVID GREEN (President, Number One UAW Local, Lordstown): No offense to General Motors but it's like we're finally putting effort into a car. We're finally building a small car that's going to have some serious impact on the marketplace. It's essential for our survival and for our future.
SCHULTZE: John Donahoe has more than 30 years with GM and took over as plant manager here four years ago. So he gets the perk of showing off the early model of the Cruze.
Mr. JOHN DONAHOE (Plant Manager, General Motors, Lordstown): I took it down to - the Cruze - in Hudson, Ohio — the Acme Plaza, and people were just like, when are you going to start making that? So…
Unidentified Woman: Why?
Mr. DONAHOE: Styling, number one. The exterior, number two - it's a great vehicle for interior, say, little more plush. And it's a great fuel economy, 40 miles per gallon or may be just a little more with the Turbo engine.
SCHULTZE: Lordstown workers don't only want the Cruze to succeed, they say they need it to.
Mr. JIM GRAHAM (President, Number Two UAW Local, Lordstown): This car is going to be a big part of the General Motors' backbone. And we know that we have to make this thing work. We have to make it work.
SCHULTZE: Jim Graham is president of the other UAW local at Lordstown. Two years ago, both locals followed the national union into a strike against GM. Now they're working under a contract filled with wage and work-rule concessions. But Graham says Lordstown has always had good labor-management relations.
Mr. GRAHAM: We are number one — the highest volume plant in the world. At one time, we produced 112 Vegas an hour. And believe it or not, the Vega was a well-engineered car. But because of the demand, we started producing more and more and more per hour. People really couldn't keep up with the work and that's why it turned into a piece of junk. But the core of our people are still there.
SCHULTZE: The other UAW President David Green notes that that core will be doing business a different way because of the Cruze retooling.
Mr. GREEN: The whole system over here is special because it's flexible. It gives us the ability to build like we've never had before. We're going to be able to change the products in line with market demand, which is huge.
SCHULTZE: Terry Golden had to deal with change just about everyday since she bought A&J's family restaurant up the road from the Lordstown plant in 2006. Six weeks after she bought it, GM cut a shift, added it back, then cut two. Contractors setting up for the Cruze and good lunch specials kept her going throughout Lordstown's summer shutdown.
Ms. TERRY GOLDEN (Owner, A&J's Family Restaurant): I'm hoping that with GM open, we'll get more business, people traveling in and out of the area. Hopefully, we'll get some to-go orders from the GM people themselves. And I don't know, I hope things will get back to normal soon. They haven't been normal since I opened actually.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. GOLDEN: I don't know what a normal is yet.
SCHULTZE: About a year ago, the Lordstown plant had more than 4000 workers on three shifts. About 2200 returned this month after the nine-week shutdown. And Green says many of them have a different attitude.
Mr. GREEN: People appreciate our jobs more today than we have, really, for some decades. For some people, you know, you get a job at GM. And it's almost like you had entitlements in life. And I think they've recognized that those are really no entitlements. That anything can happen at any given time. The world has just changed.
SCHULTZE: What Lordstown workers are hoping now is that the Cruze will give them a new place in that changed world.
For NPR News, I'm M.L. Schultze in Kent, Ohio.